The Well-Tempered Ear

Should you keep practicing at 90? Ask famed cellist Pablo Casals

October 11, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

Do you ever get old enough and accomplished enough to stop practicing?

Just ask the legendary Catalan cellist Pau (Pablo) Casals (below).

That’s the same Pablo Casals (1876-1973) who spent his entire life learning and performing, as you can read in his Wikipedia biography: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pablo_Casals.

That’s also the same pioneering Pablo Casals who also first discovered, recorded and popularized the solo cello suites by Johann Sebastian Bach, which you can sample in the YouTube video at the bottom. It was recorded in 1954 when Casals was 77.

What do you think about his remark?

Do you agree with Casals?

Would you still practice at 90?

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: This summer’s Token Creek Festival is CANCELED. Plus, a teenager’s piano “practice journal” on Instagram is instructive, entertaining and encouraging

July 17, 2020
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NEWS ALERT: This summer’s Token Creek Festival (TCF) — with the chamber music theme of Legacy to run from Aug. 21-Sept. 6 –has been CANCELED. Organizers say they hope to launch a virtual online season of archived performances at the end of the summer.  Also, once modestly sized gatherings are safe again, the TCF hopes to hold an off-season event. For more information and an official statement from TCF, go to: https://tokencreekfestival.org 

By Jacob Stockinger

Somewhere in New York City is a young Chinese piano prodigy who can help you get through what is often the most challenging and discouraging part of piano lessons: practicing.

His name is Auston (below) – no last name is given – and you can find him, in T-shirts and shorts, on Instagram at Auston.piano.

Auston is quite the prodigy. A 13, he plays difficult and dramatic repertoire: the Nocturne in C minor, the Scherzo No. 1 in B minor and the Ballade No. 1 in G minor, all by Chopin.

You can also hear him play the Prelude and Fugue No. 3 in C-sharp minor from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, by Johann Sebastian Bach; the fiendish Toccata by Sergei Prokofiev; and the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

One day, The Ear expects, Auston might well be among the impressive amateurs and, later, professionals who compete in international competitions.

But more than listening to him playing, his frequent social media entries – sometimes he posts two or three times a day — allow us to hear him practice. We even hear him practicing scales – so-called Russian scales that combine scales in parallel and contrary motion.

This week, he hit 100 video posts. Just yesterday Auston started sight-reading the “Winter Wind” Etude of Chopin, Op. 25, No. 11, which many consider to be the most technically difficult of all Chopin’s etudes. (You can hear the etude – played by Maurizio Pollini – and see the note-filled score in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Starting out, he often plays hands separately (below) and sight-reads the score very, very slowly, making mistakes and working out fingering. He also uses a metronome at a very slow tempo. He gets frustrated but he never gives up. He just starts over again and provides an excellent role model for aspiring piano students.

But this young man is also fun to read. In his one-minute or less entries of his “practice journal” – which he also calls his “practice journey” — he is witty and self-deprecating in his commentaries about the music and especially about himself when he makes mistakes. As seriously as he takes the piano and practicing, he doesn’t take himself too seriously.

All in all he can even encourage others – including The Ear –to persevere and go through the same frustrations of practicing and learning a new piece.

In this case, it is the piano, but the postings could easily apply to practicing any other instrument or even to singing.

Check it out.

You will be impressed.

You will admire him.

You will laugh along with him.

And you just might practice more.

If this practice journal is a pandemic project, it succeeds way beyond what you — and probably Auston himself — might expect.

Happy listening!

And patient, productive practicing!

 


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Classical music: This Friday at noon, technology meets Beethoven when UW-Madison pianist Kangwoo Jin plays a FREE concerto performance

March 5, 2020
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By Jacob Stockinger

This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale — tomorrow, March 6 — at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive, features an unusual concert in which classical music meets high technology.

Kangwoo Jin (below, in a photo by Steve Apps for the Wisconsin State Journal), a gifted and prize-winning pianist from South Korea, will perform the second and third movements of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58.

But instead of a second piano or a full orchestra, Jin will be accompanied by a newly developed interactive app that adjusts to Jin and allows him to play his solo part flexibly with a real orchestra accompaniment that has been recorded minus the piano part.

Jin is studying for his doctorate with UW Professors Christopher Taylor and Jessica Johnson. He will graduate this May.

Next week Jin — who has won the UW-Madison Concerto and Beethoven Competitions and who teaches at Farley’s House of Pianos, the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music and the UW Continuing Education program– will open and close the UW-River Falls Piano Festival with two performances of the same Beethoven concerto with the St. Croix Valley Symphony Orchestra

Jin suffers from hemophilia and has to be careful about injuring himself from over-practicing and over-playing. He has a fascinating and inspiring personal story to tell. Here is a link to a story about him in the Wisconsin State Journal: https://madison.com/wsj/entertainment/uw-pianist-shares-musical-gift-despite-health-challenge/article_fdba6f0f-9245-5816-a97c-c4f3a6e2d0ed.html

You can follow his Facebook page. And here is a link to Jin’s own website, which has more biographical information and videos: https://www.pianistkangwoojin.com


Jin says that, in addition to the two concerto movements, he will also play several short pieces:  “Clair de Lune” (Moonlight) by Claude Debussy; the “Raindrop” Prelude by Chopin; and two song transcriptions by Franz Liszt — Schubert’s “Litany” and Schumann’s “Widmung” (Dedication).

The orchestral accompaniment for the Beethoven concerto is performed by MusAcc — an iPad app. It is an app that can customize and manipulate the audio, much like an actual instrument, in real time.  Think of it as an orchestra in a box that you can use anywhere.

Jin explains the reasons for his FUS concert, which starts at NOON (not 12:15 p.m., as it used to be) and goes to about 1 p.m.:

“Playing a concerto is not possible in that venue, so I am using a recorded file for the orchestra part,” Jin says. “My friend Yupeng Gu, who developed this audio controlling device, will conduct and control the pacing of the recording so that the sound synchronizes with my playing. It is quite incredible and will be a very interesting concert.”

“I hope this breaks the barrier of having to have a big venue and other difficulties for performing concertos, and lets local people enjoy a more accessible and diverse repertoire,” he says. “If people like it, I would like to play the whole concerto and maybe more concertos — hopefully, all five Beethoven piano concertos — this way. This is something I have not tried before, so I am excited about it.”

“People have much easier access to solo performances, but not to concertos due to many limitations,” Jin adds. “So I expect them to have a novel experience with this concert.”

In the YouTube video at the bottom, you can hear a similar performance, done with the same device, featuring a different pianist playing the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15.

 


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Classical music: After a year recovering from an injury, Chinese superstar pianist Lang Lang says he has become a more serious musician

August 11, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Chinese pianist Lang Lang (below) has long been popular, a best-selling superstar and one of the most bankable players in the business.

Yet such was his flamboyant showmanship and self-indulgence that many of his colleagues and critics did not take him very seriously. Many thought of him more as the Liberace of the classical concert stage.

But then a serious injury to his left arm, tendonitis from over-practicing and straining, forced Lang Lang to take a year off to recover.

During that time he married. He worked with young children and music students, even funding a new piano lab. And he released a new CD (“Piano Book”) of short pieces that he has loved since his student days. (You can see Lang Lang coaching a young pianist about a Mozart sonata that played a pivotal role in his life during a master class in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Lang Lang now says that during that recovery period he rethought everything about his career and has made some major changes from practicing to performing.

And what seems to have emerged, at age 37, is a new approach that emphasizes more seriousness and regularity coupled with greater respect for the music he plays.

Time will tell – in both live and recorded performances — how much has really changed in Lang Lang’s approach to making music.

Nonetheless, the dramatic change was recounted recently in a comprehensive story in The New York Times, which even goes back to trace the pianist’s career, including failures, from his early childhood (below) in China.

Read it and see what you think.

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/24/arts/music/lang-lang-piano.html

Then tell us in the Comment section if it has changed how you think about Lang Lang.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Meet UW-Madison bassoonist Marc Vallon who performs with the Willy Street Chamber Players on Friday night

July 17, 2019
2 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

Who is Marc Vallon (below, in a photo by James Gill)?

This week, he is the bassoonist who will perform Franz Danzi’s Quartet for Bassoon and Strings in D minor, Op. 40, No. 2 (ca. 1820), this coming Friday night, July 19, with the acclaimed Willy Street Chamber Players (below), who will also be joined by pianist Jason Kutz and violist Sharon Tenhundfeld..

(The concert is at 6 p.m. in Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1021 Spaight Street. The program includes: the Allegretto for Piano Trio by Ludwig van Beethoven (1812); “Dark Wood” by American composer Jennifer Higdon (2001); and the rarely heard String Quartet No. 1  (1948) by Argentinean composer Alberto Ginastera. Admission is $15.)

A native of France, Vallon is one of the busiest musicians in Madison. He teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, where he also performs individually, with faculty and student colleagues, and as a member of the Wingra Wind Quintet. He also frequently performs and conducts Baroque music with the Madison Bach Musicians.

Vallon attended the Paris Conservatory, where he won first prizes in bassoon and chamber music, and also earned a philosopher degree at the Sorbonne or University of Paris.

A versatile musician, Vallon played with famed avant-garde French composer Pierre Boulez and for more than 20 years was the principal bassoon of the well-known Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra. He has also performed with major modern orchestras and conductors as well as with many period-instrument groups.

He gives master classes worldwide and also composes.

For a more extended and detailed biography, go to: https://www.music.wisc.edu/faculty/marc-vallon/

Vallon recently did an email Q&A interview with The Ear:

What drew you to the bassoon (below) over, say, the piano or singing, over strings, brass or other woodwinds?

I played the piano as young kid but was not very interested in the mechanics of it, even if I had a strong passion for music. It was the day that my piano teacher brought to my lesson a friend of his to do a bassoon demo that I found the right medium for my passion.

I started practicing like a maniac and knew by the age of 14 that I was going to be a professional bassoonist.

What would you like the public to know about the bassoon, perhaps about the challenges of playing it and about the repertoire for it?

The bassoon does not offer more challenges than other wind instruments, but it is safe to say that an absolute perfectionist person should probably not play it.

It is an instrument capable of true beauties, yet it has its own character. You don’t conquer it, you work with it like you would work with a wonderful but temperamental colleague.

Bassoonists sometimes complain that our solo repertoire is not as rich in masterpieces as the clarinet’s or the flute’s. True, but in its 350 years of existence, the bassoon has amassed enough wonderful music to keep us busy for several lifetimes.

What would you like to tell the public about the specific Bassoon Quartet by Franz Danzi that you will perform, and about Danzi and his music in general?

The bassoon and strings quartet became popular in the last decades of the 18th century, a trend that lasted well into the Romantic era.

Sadly, many of these quartets are basically show-off pieces for the bassoonist while the strings players have to suffer through some often very dull accompaniment parts.

I like this one by Danzi (below) because it features the strings on the same musical level as the bassoon, creating an enjoyable musical conversation rather than a cocky bassoon monologue. (You can hear that musical conversation in the opening movement of the Bassoon Quartet by Danzi in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

As a performer and conductor, you are well–known for championing baroque music as well as modern and contemporary music. Do you have a preference? Do they feed each other in your experience?

What I always have enjoyed about playing contemporary music is the possibility to work with living composers because I often realized how flexible they are with their own music and how much they like the performer’s input. They’re often ready to compromise and veer away from the strict notation.

The approach when playing composers from the past is actually very similar in the sense that we have to remember how approximate music notation is. Baroque composers are not here anymore obviously, but the 17th and 18th centuries sources tell us clearly how much flexibility we, modern performers, have in our approach to their music.

When it comes to music pre-1800, we basically have a sketch on our music stands. I always want to remember this. (Below is a manuscript page of a cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach.)

Do you have big projects coming up next season?

Always! I am putting together a contemporary program on March 27 in our new concert hall on campus. It is called ”Opening Statements” and will feature early works from major 20th-century composers.

On period instruments, I have Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio,” Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” and more Bach on my calendar.

Is there something else you would like to say?

A big Thank You to you, Jake, for being such a relentless and informed advocate of the Madison musical scene!


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Classical music: Here are practicing tips from pianist Emanuel Ax who uses software to help correct wrong notes

September 28, 2018
3 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

Even professional musicians can find practicing to be an ordeal.

“Ax is back,” says the publicity.

That’s because world-famous pianist Emanuel Ax (below, in a photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco) is back in Madison to help open John DeMain’s 25th anniversary season with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Ax will perform the monumental and fiendishly difficult Piano Concerto No. 2 by Johannes Brahms tonight, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.

It is a piece that Ax performed live some 200 times before he would agree to recording it.

Here is a link to more about the MSO concerts with the famous pianist:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/09/26/classical-music-this-weekend-pianist-emanuel-ax-helps-conductor-john-demain-opens-his-25th-season-with-the-madison-symphony-orchestra/

And here is a link to a story about how Ax, who describes himself as a slow learner and who teaches students at the Juilliard School in New York City, practices. It contains his own tips and also talks about special software he uses to detect and correct wrong notes that is available to students and amateurs :

https://lifehacker.com/how-emanuel-ax-makes-piano-practice-less-of-a-slog-1826402441

And as a follow-up, here is a short example of the many YouTube videos of master classes with Emanuel Ax. This one small passage in a sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven gives you a good idea of the hard work that goes into the 50-minute concerto by Brahms:


Classical music: Want to know how professional musicians practice? For the next 100 days on Instagram, violin virtuoso Hilary Hahn will show you

August 13, 2018
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Many listeners and many amateur musicians often wonder: How do professionals do it? How do they practice to prepare for a performance? And what goes on in the practice rooms (below) of major conservatories and schools of music where tomorrow’s professionals study?

Of course the usual advice is to play slowly, to repeat difficult sections and to break a larger piece down into smaller parts.

But it is one thing to be told what to do, and another thing to see professionals follow their own advice and put it into practice. The Ear finds that it often inspires him to work harder and better, and more efficiently and satisfyingly.

Many performers seem reluctant to show up what goes into a career, to show the hard work of practicing that leads to apparently effortless performing.

Not Hilary Hahn (below, in a  photo by Peter Miller), the outstanding violin virtuoso who has performed several times at the Wisconsin Union Theater in some of the finest programs The Ear has ever heard.

Recently Hahn, the thoughtful three-time Grammy Award winner, started a series called #100daysofpractice on her Instagram account called “Hilary Hahn’s Violincase.” It is worth subscribing to for the short one-minute videos.

It is fascinating to see such a gifted professional slowing down passages of concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach and Jean Sibelius – music Hahn already knows intimately and has recorded — and to hear and appreciate how she continues to practice making hard leaps, negotiating difficult transitions, adjusting bowing, correcting off-pitches and finding difficult fingering and hand positions.

If you haven’t seen and heard it for yourself, treat yourself. You will learn a lot that will help you to appreciate the physicality of making music and perhaps even help you to play it better yourself.

Here is a link: https://www.instagram.com/violincase/

And there is another sample in the YouTube video at the bottom:

What do you think?

Do you know of other sites on the web and social media that document professional musicians practicing? If so, please leave the address in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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