Happy 258th, Wolfgang!

January 27, 2014 at 5:49 PM | Posted in Music, Piano | 2 Comments
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About a year ago at this time, I heard David Dubal, noted pianist and writer say that for him, Mozart was the greatest composer of them all. Though the world would not argue with this, his choice struck me as odd. I had had my Mozart stretches but I didn’t consider him as deep, as profound as Bach or Beethoven. I didn’t know what I was talking about.

Six months ago I began to listen to Mozart almost daily and each morning I read one of his letters. Bach and Beethoven have lost no luster (I don’t want to trade one foolishness for another) but a joy has entered my life – a life-affirming joy! Amidst the famous Mozart gaiety there is a sadness in his slow movements that portrays an understanding of life that is beyond anything I have ever experienced.

As one example out of hundreds, here is Mitsuko Uchida in the 2nd movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto #9 (of 27!).

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart died at not quite 35. But he is not dead and so we say Happy Birthday Wolfgang, friend to the world!

Patience and the Piano

January 20, 2014 at 12:23 PM | Posted in Piano | Leave a comment

Playing the piano, like golf, lends itself to the cry of “if only ….” With golf I think, ‘if only I hadn’t taken myself so seriously, if only I had a better attitude, if only I’d gotten over my water phobia.’

With the daunting piano, we moan ‘if only I had kept at it! If only … now I’d be able to play.’ And it is true that if we had practiced for 25 years, we could now play decently. Possibly, anyway. But what I have found is that the very reason we quit playing comes back immediately upon recommencing practice, like the tendency to duck-hook in the vicinity of out-of-bounds markers.

In my case, two prongs of memory forked me back to the past. On a staff there are 5 lines and four spaces and there are, for the piano, 2 staffs (or staves), a treble and a bass. On the staff the lines are labeled by the notes that live on them. Going up in lines on the upper staff: E,G,B,D,F (Every Good Boy Does Fine) and in spaces: F,A,C,E. Forgetting for a moment the lines and spaces: E,F,G,A,B,C,D,E,F going up and  F,E,D,C,B,A,G,F,E  going down. So far so good.

But the lower or bass staff is lettered differently: G,A,B,C,D,E,F,G,A going up and A,G,F,E,D,C,B,A,G going down.

In between the two staffs is a line that is C – the famous Middle C. Above this C is the D that precedes Every and below it is the B that tops the A at the top of the lower staff.

Above and below the staffs lines continue but only appear as needed.

Each line or space is simply and logically named and like seeing a member of your family, easy to recognize. But as a group, hurdling at you at a (proposed!) 100 notes per minute, very difficult for me to read and translate to my fingers. This prong of the fork came back to me immediately.

The second immediate problem came in finding my place should I dare to look at my fingers wandering about the keys. Where was I? What was that last note? This was the second prong that wasted no time in forking me.

There is, of course, only one answer: practice/patience. There is not one without the other.

(But I’ve forgotten to mention accidentals strewn as they are, like character defects, amidst the lines and spaces!)

If …

January 3, 2014 at 3:11 PM | Posted in Personal Development, Piano | 1 Comment
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If I did not have a piano I would be in a desperate search for one. Oh what pianistic castles in the sky I would be building! Spreadsheets would bow before my artistic justifications. My brain would get bigger and I’d live longer. I’d live better. I’d be a better person. I’d be everything I never was before. I would finally breathe.

But I have a piano and have had one for 25 years and can’t play even one song.

photoBut now I am super-motivated. I’ve just read a fantastic book: Play It Again: An Amateur Against the Impossible by Alan Rusbridger. He is the long-time editor of the (Manchester) Guardian and an amateur musician. The book is a narrative of a year-plus in which Rusbridger attempts to learn and then play publicly the notoriously difficult Chopin Ballade #1 in Gm. This is juxtaposed against publishing the Wikileaks (led by the Guardian with the NY Times) and the Rupert Murdock hacking scandal.

Though Rusbridger is reasonably self-deprecating, it is impossible to not be in awe of all he gets in in a day. He has all the excuses I had for not playing (the press of business, travel, no consistent access to a piano …) and 10X more.

I am away from my piano for a few days but I’ve begun (again) anyway. How could I not?

Jeremy Denk – An Appreciation

October 22, 2013 at 2:41 PM | Posted in Music, Piano | Leave a comment
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518bDq5YVxL._AA160_Jeremy Denk, the pianist, is not short of kudos these days as he recently won a MacArthur “Genius Grant” and then, too, there are those standing ovations. Still, with the retirement of Alfred Brendel, he is my favorite pianist, my favorite musician and I want to say why.

Denk gives you more than the notes. He has a blog, ThinkDenk. His liner notes are classic, both super-knowledgeable and witty. He recently did a series of pieces for NPR on the Goldberg Variations by Bach and his spoof, Why I hate the Goldberg Variations is a must. My wife and I recently saw (experienced!) Jeremy Denk play the Goldbergs in Chicago and the experience was so much greater than normal because of what I refer to as his denkishness.

He recently recorded the Goldberg Variations and instead of liner notes, the recording came with 9 video segments in which Jeremy talks about the music. Frankly, priceless as he dishes knowledge with wonder.

This is why Denk and why I appreciate him so: he gives you so much of himself and as he plays and writes and talks about the music, he becomes super-alive – and some of that rubs off on us. A genius, yes – but oh so beautifully human.

In a follow-up post I will write about those very famous and yet to most unknown, Goldberg Variations.

Wow: Marian McPartland

August 30, 2013 at 3:47 PM | Posted in Anthony's LPs, Music, Piano | Leave a comment
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Marian McPartland may have just recently died, but oh how she lived!

photoI thought that she would go on forever, and she almost did. Born in 1918 in England, a piano prodigy at three, she came to the U.S. in ’45 to play jazz and stayed. I have a wonderful LP from my Uncle Anthony’s collection from 1960, Marian McPartland Plays Music of Leonard Bernstein.

McPartland is most famous for her landmark radio show, Piano Jazz that she began on NPR in 1978 and kept going, recording her last show in 2010, at 92 years of age. I listened to so many of these shows: she generally began by playing a number associated with her guest, then the guest (and these were some guests: Tony Bennett, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Diana Krall, Dave Brubeck, Billy Taylor, Norah Jones … everybody) would play and then would come the duets amidst the talk.

It is striking how Marian could play with all of them deep into old age. There are lessons enough and plenty in her life and recorded treasures for all of us.

250px-Marian_McPartland_2Here is a YouTube link to a Piano Jazz show with Bill Evans.

Oscar Peterson via Greenberg

August 9, 2013 at 7:58 AM | Posted in Music, Piano | 2 Comments
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51aLDVGzjvL._SY300_It was a bright moment when I discovered that Robert Greenberg, my musical Virgil from The Teaching Company, has a blog and that he writes for the love of the game, not just the classical game. Greenberg, a noted composer as well as teacher, is a devotee of all kinds of music and in the blog I read yesterday he exudes over the great jazz pianist, Oscar Peterson.

Besides the nice insert of Peterson on the Dick Cavett Show, I was most hooked by his discussion of certain recordings that the super-prolific Peterson made in “a living room in the town of Villingen-Schwennigen in the south-western corner of Germany, smack-dab in the middle of the Black Forest.” Boy, did my ears perk up when I read this! I feel an affinity with the Schwarzwald that, while founded on eating (ah, the kirsch and cherries over ice cream!), extends to the many people I met there.

Greenberg highlights a 4 CD set, Exclusively for My Friends, recorded in 1963 – 1968 as being a particular treasure. Though I am in a spell of non-buying, I went to Amazon just to browse. Only 1 left! I am susceptible to such e-tricks. At the moment I am about to purchase, our power goes off. Hmm. A few hours later, electricity is flowing.

When I woke up today I had no idea that I would be contemplating Oscar Peterson. Do it. Do it!

The set arrives next week.

Pianofest and a Dilemma

June 29, 2013 at 1:10 PM | Posted in Music, Piano | 2 Comments
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ImagePianofest in The Hamptons is so much fun, so interesting, so striking that it is only afterwards that I pondered why my wife and I were the youngest in the audience.

Pianofest, celebrating its 25th Season and directed by Paul Schenly, is an intensive summer study program for 8 seriously talented young pianists who are either in or graduated from Julliard and the like – and all have won numerous prizes. Here’s the great part: 14 weekly concerts throughout the summer, with each pianist playing one or two pieces, and the price is $20 per concert and free for students.

We attended this past Wednesday and the venue was a small, intimate parish hall behind St. Luke’s Episcopal Church ( a visual gem). We were very close to the musicians and after each performance I turned to my wife and said, ‘wow, I that was the best performance so far.’ In two cases, I felt chills.

So, the dilemma: seemingly hip, attractive young people who have dedicated their lives to an art, succeeding, play only to older crowds. Classical music by its name is old-fashioned and the composers most often played are long dead. Piano music has no words and on the surface, little sex appeal. While you could, you don’t dance to it.

The fundamental problem though, is not musical. Put kids in a room with a great teacher and one of these young pianists and the room would rock. The kids would get it. But the problem is that older people attend these concerts and young people do not want to be with them except on Thanksgiving. I felt the same way as they did.

Until classical music becomes social for the young, it will languish and that is a waste of one the supreme jewels of civilization.

Marc-André Hamelin in Chicago

May 23, 2013 at 8:57 AM | Posted in Music, Piano | Leave a comment
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Image 1With thousands of LPs, CDs, cassettes and even mp3s in my library and now being out of the limelight,  I could listen to whatever I want for as long as I want. I am not suggesting that I have too much of a good thing – I just ordered 3 more CDs yesterday – but I listen best, as I did when I was pressed for time, when I have a concert to prepare for.

Marc-André Hamelin, the great Canadian pianist was coming to town and I bought my tickets over a year ago. Back then, I had no idea what he would play but I had to see and hear him and his vaunted technique. There are some who put him on the top of the pianistic heap because of his technique and unusual repertoire and some who drop him a few notches for those same reasons. Ordering early, we had primo seats, in the lower balcony on the essential left side which gives full visual access to the artist and those hands.

Image 2I was more than delighted when I first saw the program: Berg, Faure, Ravel, Hamelin!, Debussy, Rachmaninoff. Great names all, save Hamelin as a composer but no Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms — good, give them the day off. I love them but in music I am inconstant and seek variety.

As it happens, I have all the works in my room: Aimard playing the very modern Berg Sonata #1 and Stott the Faure Impromptu #2 and Barcarolle #3(!). I had many choices for the Debussy Reflets dans l’eau and the Ravel Jeau d’eau. For Rachmaninoff’s Sonata #2, I have a wonderful performance from the beguiling Hélenè Grimaud and one from 1968 on LP from the thrower of thunderbolts, Horowitz (which must be heard.)

Image 3My greatest pleasure came in preparing for Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit. Here too I had CDs at the ready but I chose three LPs that my Uncle Anthony gave me. As I listened to them it was as if he was in the room, as, in a sense, he was. He would listen, back in those old days, with a relaxed attention. Often, once the piece was over, he would recall how he came to have the recording. I hung on those words. Music is so much more than music to me, as it was to my Uncle.

Those 3 records:

  • Robert Casadesus, the elegant Frenchman and a Grand Prix du Disque recording.
  • Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, the Italian Magician from a live performance.
  • Emanuel Ax, the much-loved American in one of his first recordings.

Hamelin was great and I felt electricity throughout. One of the works was his own as well one of the encores. His major composition was a very tongue-in-cheek take on Paganini that had us laughing and that is not usual at concerts. Something else: it is normal for a pianist to be marching on and off the stage after every piece or small set of pieces. It brings applause but has always seemed to me to be made-up, stilted. But not noble Hamelin: he played a piece or a small group, stood up and accepted the applause and then sat back down and as the English say, got on with it.

It was a great experience.

Master Classes and Biz: A View from the Field

May 8, 2013 at 2:30 PM | Posted in Business, Piano, Training | 9 Comments
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UnknownIn my previous post we entered the world of the piano masterclass. Now we will examine training in the world of software sales. What follows is not based on studies but on my own experiences over 39 years and nine companies. The focus will be on Presentation Training.

I have had great Presentation Training and so I am not picking on the weakest horse in the race.In the next post I will make suggestions for improvement but now will review what often takes place.

In the best training, the instructor is skilled in presenting and training and early on, introduces foundational concepts, taking time to answer questions and to make sure that she is getting her points across. Soon, each student is filmed in a short introductory talk, just to get the feel of speaking before the group and also, to give the teacher a base-line as to the student’s skills and areas to improve. The instructor gives feedback for a few minutes and then it is on to the next student.

Following this segment, more content is delivered and then the second filming takes place. Often, the student has prepared a talk and quickly adapting what he has just learned, stands and delivers. This second presentation is almost always better than the first. Once again, a few minutes of feedback and the student sits –  with a sigh of relief. He is given his film and soon he is back in the field.

Three days later, when preparing his upcoming presentation, he will seek to incorporate the most easily digested concepts he recently learned and if the air currents are favorable, he will give them a try. Most of the time, though, is spent re-purposing old slides. In a month, most if not all is forgotten as is the whereabouts of his filmed performances.

Remember, this is training done at a reasonably high level and by no means the average. Also, I am assuming that the student wanted to learn and was neither checked out, burnt out, cranky or upset at the world.

But I exaggerate: 10% of the students improve significantly and nobody gets worse than they were. I have been thinking about this for decades. Why aren’t the numbers reversed – why don’t 90% improve significantly? I think that it comes down to three fundamental points:

  1. Sales Reps undervalue the potential of their role in the sales process.
  2. They overvalue their skill level.
  3. The training is not sustained.

However, if Sales Professionals understood how important they are, understood that their importance lies not in setting appointments and giving a 12 minute “corporate” overview but in thinking through the customer’s problems and the solution to those problems in a unique way and then presenting the results of that work in a compelling, unforgettable manner,  then the Sales Professional  would take a cold clear look at their skills  and not only insist on training, but insist on being the best in class and then the best in the field.

Don Draper always makes the pitch.

Master Classes and Business – Part 1

May 6, 2013 at 8:44 PM | Posted in Piano, Training | Leave a comment
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imagesThis post is the first of a series that seeks to use master classes, as they are used in piano instruction, as a potential way of improving the training and coaching we do in business.

A “master class” is a setting where a great pianist or renowned teacher (sometimes they are both) coaches a young student while other students and interested parties, like us, look on. It can be excruciating for all involved, like a blood sport. But it can be an awesome learning experience as well. It is demanding.

These masters do not just sit there listening calmly, applaud and pass on a tip or two. Oh no, they continually interrupt! The great pianist András Schiff tells the story of a student about to play his first note and the master stops him. The student says, ‘but I haven’t started yet.’ The master rejoins, ‘No-but you were about to.’ The student’s foot was reaching for the pedal and the master saw that as a mistake.

The masters often demonstrate and the casual ease with which they play, rarely even glancing at the music, is striking. You get the sense that they truly know what to do and they help that by not excusing their own playing – ‘I’m rusty.’ By not apologizing they build confidence, so essential in a teacher-student relationship.

As I began watching these classes, I wondered how anybody could learn with these constant interruptions which can resemble a parent yelling advice from the stands as their child is in mid swing. That their peers are in the audience heightens the tension. But then I learned of the Hungarian pianist and teacher György Sebök in an article in The New Yorker by one of my favorite pianists, Jeremy Denk. In this wonderful and touching memoir of learning to play, Denk relates his experiences with two of his teachers, William Leland and Sebök (who taught for many years at Indiana University) and it is Sebök I found on YouTube holding a masterclass in 1987. The class is in six 10 minute segments and all are worth watching.

Sebök, in a manner that is both dreamy and detailed, gives the young pianist, in a perfect grandfatherly way, a philosophical framework for the Haydn piece she is playing but also technical advice. In the latter half of the first section of the video, Sebök asks her to play a short piece with both hands, as usual. Then, with just the right hand. Next he asks her to play it again with just the right and he plays the left hand part. Lastly, she plays it with both hands. You can hear the difference in her playing. Now that is teaching – and learning.

It is important to understand that the students are by no means beginners. They are tremendous pianists, sometimes future virtuosos. From what I have seen, they don’t become outwardly frustrated, though inside they may be counting the seconds for the next victim to take the stool. I imagine their best self being wide open to learning and that they take the discomfort as it comes, as a necessary passage to learning their art. I imagine them feeling quite lucky and if not immediately, soon after.

If, as I do, you find the master class fascinating, I recommend this one by Jeremy Dent, given at the Chamber Music Society in New York. In it he coaches two groups of musicians. It is two hours long but you can skip around. Denk, an American and Sebök the Hungarian are quite different but both share a winning generosity of spirit.

While the major point of this blog-series is the adaption of the master class method to business, I found that after watching a master class, my ability to listen to music expanded. For example, I heard gradations in sound, how a pianist first played a phrase this way and then another way. I heard the difference between teacher and student. I was, to adapt Proust’s advice, hearing with new ears.

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