The Well-Tempered Ear

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: 

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!


Posted in Classical music
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Classical music: What music best expresses the “bomb-cyclone” and Arctic blasts?

January 6, 2018

By Jacob Stockinger

Weather-wise, the past couple of weeks have been unforgettable and, in many ways, unbearable.

First, around Christmas, we had one bitterly cold Arctic blast.

Then after New Year’s Day came the massive “bomb-cyclone” that brought snow and ice, high winds and flooding, to the East Coast all the way from Florida to Maine.

Next came another Arctic blast – that put most of the country into the deep freeze with sub-zero temperatures that broke records over a century old.

(How, The Ear wonders, does the Arctic blast differ from the Polar Vortex of a few years ago? And who invents such colorful names that certainly seem new.)

Such extreme wintry weather has brought misery, hardship and even death to wherever it struck.

With luck, the coming week will see a return to more normal temperatures and more normal winter weather.

Still, the past few weeks got The Ear to wondering: What music best expresses such extreme kind of winter weather?

The highly virtuosic and aptly named “Winter Wind” Etude in A minor, Op. 25, No. 11, by Frederic Chopin came to mind. Its swirling notes suggest the howling wind and bitter cold while the minor-key melody has a certain dirge-like or funereal quality to it.

You can hear it played by Evgeny Kissin in the YouTube video at the bottom.

But The Ear is sure that many readers could suggest other musical depictions of extreme winter weather.

So please leave the name of the composer, the title of the work and, if possible, a link to a YouTube video performance at the bottom.

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music: What is the best music to listen to in sub-zero cold weather?

January 6, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

Well, I know three of the pieces I will NOT be listening to this week: the “Alpine” Symphony by Richard Strauss, the “Sinfonia Antarctica” by Ralph Vaughan Williams and the “Winter Wind” etude by Chopin.


This week, we in the Upper Midwest are getting a typical January blast from the Arctic. The low temp last night was -11 degree F. As I am writing, the temperature has risen all the way to -8.

sub-zero weather

It will get above zero today. Briefly.

But then another winter Arctic front moves in and we again drop done below zero again with absolute temps down to -20 and wind chills down to -50 or more. On Wednesday, the daytime high will be -3.

So it seems The Ear will be logging quite a lot of indoor time since no warm up is in store until the weekend.

Hence The Ear’s Question of the Week: When the weather is this dangerously cold and you end up pretty much housebound, what is the music you like to listen to?

Sometimes I want to explore a new piece or a new composer.

But often, feeling deprived of normal activities, I want the comfort of listening to something familiar and maybe a little passionate and Romantic, which translates into “heated.” For one example, look below at the YouTube video of pianist Arthur Rubinstein playing the Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 52, by Chopin.

Of course, one could choose works on a grander scale such as symphonies by Ludwig van Beethoven or Gustav Mahler, concertos by Robert Schumann or Peter Tchaikovsky, oratorios by George Frideric Handel, masses and requiems, and of course operas by Verdi and Puccini.

Or perhaps, like me, you favor a more intimate but collaborative rather than solo genre -– perhaps a string quartet or the piano trio, one of my favorites. I find the music of Franz Schubert so friendly and empathetic.

There is also some about the music of the Baroque and Classical eras that seems light, rational, clear-headed and reassuring. Something like Comfort Food for the Ears.

So perhaps I will put on some music by Johann Sebastian Bach or some of my favorite chamber music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

A week like this could also be a good start on listening to a series, something like all the symphonies or string quartets of Franz Joseph Haydn or all the piano concertos of Mozart.

Another good choice would be to set out to explore the 550 sunny Italian-Spanish keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti.

Maybe it is an instrument that provides a respite from the cold — perhaps the guitar.

Anyway: Don’t be shy. Help us get through this bitter cold snap. Please use the Comment section to let The Ear and other readers know what you are listening to in weather like this -– or what you think you would listen to. Or what we should listen to. Include a link to a YouTube performance, if you can.

The Ear wants to hear.


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