Comment

Why Else Are We Here?

Earlier this summer, I traveled to the Interlochen Academy for the Arts to teach a masterclass and play a recital.  My husband and I visited here on an anniversary trip almost 20 years ago – the visit was brief and fleeting enough that I may as well consider this my first time here.  I arrived on a Thursday afternoon coming directly from a performance in Grand Rapids, and the minute I stepped out of my car and heard music being carried through the air, I relaxed and felt at home.  This is, after all, a place where art and music are prized above all things – “Art Lives Here” - even if just for a few days or weeks of your life.

20190705_152012.jpg

On Friday afternoon, I had a break in my practice schedule so I decided to walk the campus. I wanted to enjoy each moment, as it would likely be the only “free” time before concert prep dominated every thought.  The air was hot, the sun was blazing, and there was a welcome breeze that carried the sweet smell of summer on a constant wave to your senses.  I strolled passed the outdoor auditoriums and music buildings onto dirt paths that took me further into the woods to what I call “Practice Alley” – a group of tiny cabins that serve as practice rooms.  I could imagine myself as a high schooler being in heaven in this environment, surrounded by so much of what I dreamed I wanted for my life.  I always wanted to be a concert pianist, with the secondary dream of being a lawyer.  I think back on those desires often, and ponder how seemingly easy it was for me to shift gears and choose another road when the opportunity presented itself.  There are times – many, many times – when I regret changing instruments, even though my musical life has a diversity that I would not have as a pianist.  I don’t regret the change of a life but the missed opportunity to be inside all the repertoire that has inspired and driven me for decades.  I still perform on the piano, but you can’t serve two (or three, in my case) masters – I can only practice so many instruments at once and maintain an acceptable standard of excellence I can live with, so I have to choose my focus carefully.  80% of the time, the organ takes center stage.

20190705_153954.cropped.jpg

I was pondering these things as my walk took me around the campus to the Path of Inspiration – a brick walkway inscribed with names of Interlochen alumni, teachers, and guest artists and ensembles.  The were many names that are familiar to all of us – Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, George Crumb, Lorin Maazel – surrounded by names of former students and families who at one time considered this place home.  Amongst the names, I found one of my favorite artists – Jessye Norman.  I have listened to her recording of the Strauss Vier Letzte Lieder more times than I dare count, in awe of her effortless ability to soar to great heights and plunge unfathomable depths.  It’s not just the beauty of her voice that captivates, but the incredible depth of her artistry which seems to emanate from her entire body.  Her contributions to the art – like many of the people surrounding her on that brick pathway – is profound enough to last for ages.  As I thought about these things in the quiet of the woods, I shared with a friend that I hoped one day that I hoped I could contribute something to the art to be worthy of being incorporated into the fabric of its history.  I don’t want this for my own fame or recognition, but for the opportunity of being a part of something that unveils the truth of humanity to the world in some tangible way. Why else are we here?

It is common to hear statements such as, "We don't teach music to make more musicians, but to make better human beings", or something similar.  This is a fervent truth for some, but not for me.  I teach music to cultivate musicians and artists.  The world needs more (and better) artists.  The world needs more (and better) art.  We cheapen the art if we do not commit to plumbing the depths of its identity and truths, even for the noble cause of adding to the fabric of humanity.  Art itself adds to the fabric of humanity.  How the artist chooses to behave and interact is part of their journey, part of their discovery of that humanity.  My job as a teacher and guide is to model, not to mother.  I point the best way as best as I can, but it’s not my place to cement the student’s feet on the path.  That is their choice.  I am comfortable saying this in the midst of a world and culture that is defining itself by violence, ignorance, and divisiveness on every side of the spectrum.  Art provides all of us an opportunity to search for our own, unique truth while still being a part of a larger community of others.  There are untold forms of expression, and if we search hard enough, others who are drawn to what we think is peculiar to us alone.  Through art, we find our tribe and yet remain part of a larger, more beautifully diverse whole.

Comment

Comment

Musician As Athlete

The performance above is from a recording session for a competition in 2002. I include it with this post because for me, the process of recording is very much like the physical and mental discipline akin to running a marathon, and just as painful. More on that below…


I begin writing this as I sit in the back row of an airplane, staring out at a bed of clouds underneath us. It would be a picturesque scene if it weren’t for the booming engine behind me on the left and the high-pitched scree coming from the open door of the lav behind me on the right.  But I have the row to myself, so you take the good with the bad.  I am returning from a short, but rewarding trip to Minnesota for a recital in St. Paul and a masterclass in Northfield.  As travel for performances go, this trip was fairly low-maintenance and non-stressful – no unreasonably early flights, no missed connections or running through terminals, no crazy practice hours at the venue.  My hosts were absolutely lovely and, for once, I did not over-program the recital for the amount of practice time I had (I do struggle with that).  The students in the masterclass were quite talented and very receptive to ideas and suggestions, which is always a great relief. 

After the class, I found myself reflecting on a trend in my teaching (or fixation, if you ask some of my students).  Each time a performer sat at the bench and prepared to play, my attention was immediately drawn to their physical approach to the instrument – where they perched on the bench, the posture of their upper and lower back, and the positioning of their arms.  While my ears were certainly focused on what was coming out of the instrument, my mind was calculating whether or not that sound matched up with how the player was producing the sound.  Where are the shoulders?  What’s the position of the lower back?  Are the arms hanging freely from the torso?  Does the wrist position support the hand/finger position?  And, ultimately, does the player look comfortable enough to hold themselves relaxed at the console for long periods of time?  These questions are usually not the ones that roam through the players’ minds.  Am I going to make a mistake?  Is this too fast?  I don’t know this woman, so how do I know what she wants to hear?  This piece is really new, so how do I know how the performance will go?  Surprisingly to some, my questions (and many others) can lead to the answers to theirs.  They just haven’t discovered it yet. 

I spend a great deal of time talking to my own students about the body and how it works (or should work) at the console.  Many of us have been taught to position our bodies to fit the needs of the instrument and, in some cases, the particular piece of music we are currently playing instead of positioning ourselves at the instrument for the needs of our individual bodies.  I am one of generations of organists who were originally taught to play the pedals with the knees and heels mashed together, never to see the light of day between them until that blessed interval of a 6th (or more) is requested and then – and only then – can you finally allow your legs to extend comfortably from the hip socket.  This is a time honored tradition of pedaling pedagogy and a not-so-bad way of teaching students to judge the size of intervals without staring at their feet.  It is also an unnatural way to move the body, and therefore not the best way to train the body for a lifetime of performance. 

And there lies one of our most important jobs as teachers – to train our students for a lifetime of performance at the instrument.  The techniques we pass on have to be sturdy enough to provide a foundation to build on yet flexible enough to bend and stretch with time, wisdom, and changes in the body.  I can still squeeze my knees together as well I could 25 years ago, but boy, I’ll pay for it later.  And while I want my students to have a rock-solid technical foundation, I also want them to be able to walk straight after sitting at the bench for more than an hour when they push past that fabulous 40 mark in their lives.  This means they need a sound, flexible technique AND they need to move their bodies more when they are not on the bench.  Whenever I ask, “What do you do for exercise?” I am usually met with 1) a blank stare, 2) a sheepish, embarrassed look, or 3) outright laughter.  There are some exceptions, of course, but I find that a disturbing amount of young musicians do next to nothing to keep themselves in as prime shape as is possible FOR THEM.  Those last two words are important.  Being fit or in shape does not mean fitting someone else’s or society’s “standard” for looks or body image or killing yourself at the gym.  It means finding that balance of “ease” of life and healthy living that is appropriate for each of us individually.  My balance is different than yours, and it’s best not to compare ourselves to anyone else.  Our bodies are shaped by our individual lives and experiences and we can’t hope to become a copy of someone else’s experience.  Why would we want to? 

I frequently say in lessons that we need to train for our instrument like an athlete trains for their sport. A serious marathon runner doesn’t just wake up one day and run 26 miles.  There is a methodical, disciplined approach to reaching the desired distance and beyond, and a very disciplined process to keeping the body and mind in shape so that it can withstand the physical and mental beating it takes to do it.  As organists, we need to be reasonable and real about the proportion of time spent sitting vs. time spent moving.   We need to consider how much time is spent exerting force onto a keyboard and pedalboard vs. stretching those same muscles for flexibility.  We need to consider a balance of sedentary endurance vs. mobile endurance.  I’m no fitness expert (and I don’t play one on TV) but I do know that the more “fit” or “in shape” the body is, the more the more receptive it is to the appropriate amount of stress and strain required to practice the craft and push ourselves to the next level physically and mentally.  I will be the first to raise my hand and say that I did not take this idea that seriously when I was a student.  I spent every possible hour practicing and going to concerts and I don’t regret it for a minute.  But I’m quite sure I could have eeked out a few extra moments here and there for a brisk walk about town or in the park or stopped at the rec center for a yoga class or 2 or – more appropriately for me – taken in a vigorous game of racquetball with a friend.  And now, 25 years later, I really wish I had. 

I am not always the best example for my students, and teaching by example is one of the non-negotiable standards I work to hold myself to every week.  This doesn’t mean I try to be perfect, but that I always endeavor to perfect my trying.  If I have a success, I examine how I achieved it and keep refining the PROCESS.  If I achieve failure (yes, I believe failure is something we achieve), I examine how I achieved the failure and keep refining the PROCESS.  It’s the PROCESS that PRODUCES the RESULTS, and the consistency of the results depends on how I manage the process.  My process involves a flexible routine of practice, score study, and mental and physical awareness and discipline.  It’s these last two that are usually the keys to my failures, and I am honest with the students about how I manage these failures and celebrate the successes when they happen.  Bad performance?  Yeah, well, I should have gotten my butt on the bench more and spent more time practicing the performance.  Problem managing the instrument?  If had spent more time visualizing the console, pistons, stop tabs, etc., I would have been more successful.  Recording session wear you out and leave you in tears? Well, perhaps you should do it more often so that you can learn to manage your way through the experience. Fantastic experience?  Booyah!  I set aside everything else and immersed myself in the preparations.  I have no problem showing my students the good, bad, and ugly of life as a performing musician.  Some of the details can be rather personal, but so is everything we do as performers and educators.  I cannot lift one finger to a keyboard or open my mouth to utter a word to a student without revealing something about myself.  The very private, very introverted part of myself has learned to accept this over the years to varying degrees of comfort. 

On my way to Minnesota earlier this week, I sat in an airplane in absolute agony as my aggravated L5 nerve tortured the muscles in my back and legs. I have a disc in my spine that likes to bulge onto a nerve when I don’t keep the muscles moving and toned. As of late I have chosen practice over exercise (without regret!) and my lack of discipline to exercise over several weeks made taking just a week or two off a painful choice. I am not as fit as I need to be for my own body frame and as I get older, the body just does not bounce back to activity as it once did. Sitting for long periods of time in chairs without good support is murder for me, especially in the winter months. I know this and yet I still do not prepare for it as I should. So I suffer. This suffering is usually lesson enough to get me moving again, and this week I learned well. When I arrived at the airport in Minneapolis to head home, I made a point of walking the terminal until it was time to board the plane. I put in about a mile before I had to sit trapped in a metal tube for a little over an hour and it paid off. No pain after the fact and the usual lethargy that sets in after more than an hour of inactivity was not present. Another good day in the books! I’ll get up and try again tomorrow and we shall see what the day brings.

Comment

Comment

To Be Worthy of The Work

Benjamin Britten wrote A Hymn to the Virgin in 1930 when he was just 16 years old and convalescing from an illness at Gresham’s School in Norfolk, England. The masterful simplicity of the work belies the inexperience of a young composer, but its genius has sung through the decades.  I chose to share the recording above because of its simplicity - there’s no fuss, just the music.  I am lucky enough to sing in the semi-chorus of this piece this week at Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, a day traditionally full of Marian devotion.  The anonymous text is taken from the Oxford Book of English Verse and is a mixture of Latin and English, with the Latin phrases completing the English ones.  The effect is truly otherworldly.  At our last rehearsal, I had the pleasure of standing next to an outstanding singer whose voice, like many well-trained singers, seemed to emanate from his entire body.  The soprano part I sing is rather low, which is not the strongest part of my range.  And let’s just say I have a hard time “emanating” below A on the treble staff without a fair amount of vibrato which, in this context, wouldn’t be appropriate.  I thought about different vocalizations I could use to help fortify my lower register and began pondering whether or not I could do the piece justice - whether if as a “second-hand” singer I was worthy of the performance.  This thought reminded me of a dream I had a few weeks ago.

Picture it: I was at a job interview and for some reason, Leonard Bernstein was with me.  His presence isn’t too much of a surprise, as I played Chichester Psalms earlier in the season.  Everyone present was dressed “appropriately” in suits and such, but I was wearing a tattered t-shirt and dirty shorts.  I was sure Bernstein would give me hell for being underdressed, but he didn't. I was also completely unprepared for the interview - I didn’t even know why I was there.  I was hoping to play off of whatever Bernstein said.  He completely ignored the fact that I was clueless and we went on with it.

I woke up and thought to myself, “That surely wouldn't have happened in real life.”  Leonard Bernstein had standards that were absolutely stratospheric in scope.  I’ll never forget watching a video of Jose Carreras getting crucified for missing notes and entrances during a recording session for West Side Story. There was no way I would show up for anything with someone like Bernstein or anyone else without being prepared. So what was this all about??  I posted it on Facebook, as I thought it might get some amusing interpretations.  One in particular really struck me: “You don't feel like you are ready or worthy for the work ahead, but a deeper part of you knows that you are!” 

“You don’t feel like you are ready or worthy for the work”…now that’s something to ponder.  The Work - what is The Work?  Is it the music?  Is it the performance itself?  Is it the art?  Is it the liturgy?  Is it the faith behind it?  Is it about me or about the people I’m doing it to/for/because of? 

It is, of course, all of these things in their own, unique combinations and singularities.  It doesn’t matter whether the music is sacred or secular, sung or played.  It doesn’t whether it is played in a cathedral or sung in a corner of a coffee house.  There is something sacred, something spiritual about the music itself.  The combination of pitches in conjunction with the timbre of the instrument in connection with the tempo and flow of the phrase married to the subtle nuance and expression chosen by the performer…all these things matter.  The attention to balance and voicing, the knowledge of the composers intent coupled with the musical culture of their time and our attention to and interpretation of it…these things matter, too.  There is so much to manage and so much riding on how well you manage it.

When we perform at any given venue, some institution has raised hard-earned money to host us in the hopes that people will be attracted to their space and be moved or inspired enough to come back.  No one wants a one-time only audience.  Presenters want and need return customers to survive.  What we provide as performers is not only a representation of ourselves as artists and the music we embody, but a reflection of the host - whoever that may be.  This idea usually invites that idea that we need to entertain the assembled people as if they are ravenous creatures scratching at the edge of the stage for any morsel of food.  And perhaps they are.  But we can’t just throw chocolate chip cookies at them and say, “Enjoy the sweetness!” knowing that they will be hungry again in an hour.  Whether we like it or not, we are in the business of feeding human spirits.  Someone out there is overjoyed to be there.  Someone out there actually hates organ music but came because a friend begged them.  Someone out there is looking for a good time.  Someone out there needs an escape from the world.  Someone out there is following along with a score (egads!) looking to learn something new.  Someone out there really needs to be fed. Without something meaty to carry them on their journey (or beany, if you prefer), they’ll starve and the opportunity of the meal will be wasted.  That meal we provide - The Art - is our responsibility to pass on to the future.

The same responsibility falls on us as church musicians.  The music we choose for congregations to sing and worship to and through is not just sustenance for that one service.  It is prayer, praise, penance, soothing balm, fiery inspiration, education, faithful remembrance, and the presence of God or your Creator and a host of other things that must 1) serve those in attendance, 2) be sustainable for worshippers in the future, and 3) connect with traditions and cultures of the past.  The fact that a hymn introduced to a congregation may follow even one person through their childhood, adolescent rites of passages, maturation into adults, confrontation with mortality, and everything in between is daunting and something that we have to take incredibly seriously.  It’s not enough to provide something that gets them in the door, or makes them excited to be there, or makes them feel happy, or moves them so much that they cry.  The text and the music must be sturdy enough to cover the eventualities of life and beyond and the theology the tradition demands.  If we are responsible for helping to feed someone’s faith, every ingredient of that meal had better be carefully chosen.  That wholesome, juicy steak dinner (or bean pie) not only has to be attractive and smell delicious - it has to last a lifetime and bear a life along with it. 

I had another dream about a week after the Bernstein one.  I was in what was supposed to be a playground, but it looked like a castle made of reddish, jagged stones with giant openings for windows, but without glass.  Outside I could see bright sunshine and puffy clouds floating by.  Each room of the castle had a floor of sand, and most of the rooms had to be entered by traversing some deadly-looking slide made out of clumps of sharp stones stuck together.  “This is insane,” I thought.  “This is the most dangerous looking playground I’ve ever seen.”  To enter into the first room, I had to “slide down” a slope of rock that was barely wide enough for an adult body.  No freaking way.  “There was a time when you would try stuff like this,” my Dream-Self thought.  But I really didn’t want to do it.  It looked like it would take way too much energy and concentration, and my body was tired.  “You’re getting soft.  Pretty soon you’re going to be nothing.”  Did I mention that my Dream-Self is brutal?  I decide to try this Death Slide thing because hey, this is just a dream and the ground underneath is sand and I want to recapture all that courage I had when I was young and fearless.  But I’m sooooo tired.  I get on the slide and before I can even move, some seal-like creature with sticky paws grabs on to me and won’t let go (“Shake off dull sloth” - ha!).  Those sticky, ugly, gray paws are hanging on like crazy glue and start pulling me off the slide.  I’m going falling off and it’s really far down…

I wake up.  Exasperation takes hold - not only because the dream was bizarre, but because it was unfinished and I know exactly what it means.  I’m afraid to fail.  Forget being worthy - I’m not ready.  Or I’m just afraid. I don’t know which is worse.  I am left to ponder these things, but I also remember something else Dream-Self said just before waking up: “Yes, you’re going to fall off.  But it’s just sand, dummy, and it’s just a dream.  You’ll survive, and life will go on.  So get on with it.  We have to get out of here.  There’s more.”

Am I worthy of The Work?  I don’t know.  Some days more than others, perhaps.  Am I ready for The Work?  Same answer.  Is The Work worthy of doing?  You bet your beans.  And besides, my Dream-Self said that there is “more” - who can pass up that invitation?

Comment

Comment

Practicing in Public - A Conversation

Several years ago, I was practicing on a Saturday afternoon in preparation for the live performance you hear above.  I was using slow tempi and alternate rhythms to relearn what one of my graduate school friends called the “washing machine section,” which happens about 3 minutes into the recording. 

What are alternate rhythms, you may ask?  Musicians often practice a piece using different rhythms than written in the score in order to hear the music in a different way and get a different physical experience of the piece.  For me, it can be essential to the learning or re-learning process because it helps me to look at a certain section from many different angles.  It also tests my familiarity with the fabric of the music both aurally and physically.

So off I went, starting and restarting, playing crunchy harmonies over and over again, beginning in the middle of phrases, playing pieces and parts out of order, assuming I was the only person in the church that could hear this mess.  After a while, I looked up and saw an elderly member of the church who, I realized, had arrived for his yearly remembrance of the death of his wife.  Every year on this anniversary, he would flip through picture albums and reminisce in the quiet, soft light that filtered through the church windows.  Once I realized who he was and why he was there, I decided to take a break - who wants to listen to slow-practice Messiaen while remembering a loved one?  As I was leaving the nave, he looked up at me with watery eyes and voice and said, “That was beautiful, Nicole.  Really beautiful.”  No, it wasn’t.  It was painful, painstaking noise-making to anyone but me, or so I thought.  What a sweet man.

These situations are unavoidable for organists, as we are rarely afforded the privilege of privacy.  Unless you are slogging it out in a tiny practice room at some college, most of the instruments you play are in VERY public places - churches, concert halls, civic auditoriums - just name any spot where a stranger is bound to walk through at any moment, sometimes holding up a phone to record your every note.  Oh boy.  In music school, we become accustomed to and comforted by the fact that the practice room is our private sanctuary where we are free to fail, flail, and throw chunks of music up against the wall.  It is also a place where we strive, excel, dream, and dare to risk everything we have for that “perfect” phrase (I hate using that word in the context of music, but we DO think it).  And when that rare moment of “perfection” appears, there is always the fear that we may never duplicate the process.  These are very private, very personal moments between a musician and their instrument.  These are intimate sharings and vulnerable bearings of the soul that, on first exposure, we are loath to share with anyone.  But we spend our lives practicing in public, allowing the sexton or the student or the minister to inspect the first draft of an artistic product even before we ourselves have had the chance to reflect on it.  Every brushed note, every missed position shift, every errant pedal combination is on display for the world to hear.  Need I say how incredibly nerve wracking this can be? 

Over the years I have realized that practicing in public is symbolic of life as a musician.  As a teacher, I know that the students are always watching.  They listen to what we say and how we say it.  They watch how we play and how we move.  They note how we work with the instrument, and how we fight with it.  They mostly watch us succeed because we rarely allow them to see anything else, but there are times when they do see us fail.  They can’t always recognize the failure, but they can sense when something has gone awry.  As a performing organist, it is to be expected that your practice sessions will be public and, quite often, noisy.  The church will need to be vacuumed, or the altar guild needs to set up for Sunday, or a repairman needs to bang a hammer somewhere in the nave…the list goes on.  At some point, you simply have to make your peace with the fact that your work-product is constantly on display right along with those vulnerable parts of yourself you need to expose in order to learn something new. 

I love music - teaching it, performing it, and talking about the art of teaching and living as a musician.  I group teaching and living together because I truly believe they are branches of the same tree.  Like performing, teaching is a creative process that can be different every day if we allow it to unfold naturally through the student.  There is a unique relationship between the student, their instrument, and the music and an equally unique relationship between the student and teacher.  This relationship also exits between a performer and audience, but in a more removed, anonymous way which, if you stop to think about it, is a whole lot riskier.  Would you rather bare your soul to a stranger or someone you know fairly well?  I suppose we may all answer that question differently but the element of risk remains the same.  For me, this is where the excitement and challenge lies. 

I am fortunate to enjoy a rather diverse career as a musician. I travel a fair amount for performances, I am an active church musician, and I teach the next generation of organists and musicians.  I consider all of these things a huge privilege and a great responsibility in their own, unique way.  In the midst of all this, stuff happens and a lot of it is fairly interesting.  Somehow, the experiences seem more vivid - more real - when shared.  When I tell these stories someone usually says, “Nicole, you should write a book.”  I don’t yet have the discipline for that so I thought I would begin this little conversation with you.  Now and then, I hope to share a few thoughts and experiences with you - feel free to share something back.  It’s how we learn, after all.

I make a point to tell my students that I’m always listening. And I am. I often swing by practice rooms and listen outside the door for a few moments to hear what’s really going on in there. Most of the time I hear good things, but not all the time. And let’s face it - we all waste time in our practice on occasion, as we do in life. But it doesn’t change the fact that as musicians - as artists - we are required to “practice in public.” We must be willing to expose ourselves and what we believe in order to communicate with the listener. My undergraduate Form and Analysis teacher once said in class, “music is the search for Truth,” and he was absolutely right. “Truth” is a different thing for all of us - for some it is more emotional, for some more spiritual, and for some more intellectual. How we define our own Truth is how we define ourselves and our lives, and this is what we communicate to the listeners through our music-making. I look forward to sharing our Truths together.

Comment