Performing Music

The Big Reveal of Virtual Choir 3.0's Water Night

Yesterday was truly a magical day. After going through a rough morning (Murphy's Law prevailed), I was looking forward to seeing the cheerful faces of my students and the "premiere" of Virtual Choir 3.0. Both were the balm that I needed.


My students had heard about me struggling with my submission for Virtual Choir 3.0 (those pesky trouble spots). How apropos that I watched the premiere with two of my music students via Lincoln Center's live stream.


From the moment that lone water drop touched down and we sang our opening chord, the hairs on my arms stood up and my arms tingled. My students and I were just speechless for several minutes:

Our "performance" of "Water Night" by Grammy-winning composer Eric Whitacre, is a feast for the eyes as well as the ears. Spiritually, it's a balm and a booster. Truly magical. 

It's a powerful reminder of the power of music, of how art builds community and breaks barriers. A total of 3,746 videos from 2,945 people (singing one or more parts) in 73 countries were submitted.Now pundits can complain about how the cut-offs aren't exact and those "esses" drag on forever, or that we were blended together artificially. To them, I say that the virtual environment is never meant to replace the live environment. Just augment it.

I already sing in my church choir (and play piano AND cajón). I do a bit of collaborating with other musicians. Virtual Choir gives me a new world to explore. Technology to master. "Rehearsals" and "performances" that don't require me to give up teaching time. New repertoire to challenge myself with. New friends.

The singing part of Virtual Choir is only a fraction of the entire experience. I blogged about my Virtual Choir preparation and recording experience here. The real magic of Virtual Choir is "virtual choir makes real connections".

Some Virtual Choir members have been inspired by their experience to join a choir in their neighbourhood. I know of a couple who have signed up for singing lessons as a result of their Virtual Choir experience.

People from my generation may remember having international pen-pals as a child. Now, I have a whole army of pen-pals. With a VC member in numerous timezones, there is always someone available when I am.

We're exchanging gifts, planning visits and so on. I know of one couple who have come together through Virtual Choir.

We celebrate the joys, such as a job interview, a new composition or relationship. We support each other through the rough patches, such as surgery, relationship break-ups and cancer.

I was chatting with some of my choir buddies from the Virtual Choir Army last night and after celebrating the culmination of our hard work with "Water Night", we looked towards the future. Immediately on the horizon is our next multi-track project (singing Morten Lauridsen's "O Magnum Mysterium"). We dreamed about future real-life reunions and Virtual Choir 4.0. We are riding the wave of community and artistry created by Virtual Choir and seeing where it (and technology) will take us next.

So when we see that video, we see the breakdown of barriers. People in isolation coming together. People from countries who aren't on amicable terms singing "beside" each other. We see the we see the growth of those connections. We hear the magic created by people who may never meet, in communion with one another, drawn together to bring the haunting strains of "Water Night" to life.

Bravo Eric! Bravo VC Team! Bravo to all of you, my fellow choristers in Virtual Choir. We've made something truly special here.

Click on image below to check out Eric Whitacre's newest CD, Water Night:

Fun Summer Music Homework Ideas

Many music students in Canada take the summer off from music lessons. The challenge as a music instructor is to give them just enough homework that 1 - they'll actually DO it and 2 - they think it's fun. One thing my students have heard from me time and time again is the importance of having several pieces "performance ready" at all times. You never know when a relative from Europe, Asia or the States is going to come visit. As soon as they see the piano in the house, they will undoubtedly ask for a performance. That's Assignment #1. My students and I explored this year is Pattern Play, developed by Forrest & Akiko Kinney. They have five books published, full of short patterns guaranteed to sound good. My students have learned 10 patterns from the first book. Jamming on their favorite patterns is Assignment #2. Assignment 2A is to maintain their technical exercises so that they don't start from scratch in September. My students in RCM and Conservatory Canada know that the further ahead they get with their technique for the upcoming year, the easier the school year will be. Assignment #3 - repertoire. Everyone has at least two songs they they will work on independently. Some will do well at completing their tasks. Not to worry, they have at least one "fun" piece that they've selected (or we negotiated), e.g. Super Mario, Zelda, Kingdom Hearts. They're excited to learn their fave games tunes, I get to chuckle because they've picked pieces that are more rhythmically and technically challenging than some of the pieces they tackled this year. Assignment #4 is a music mastery project. My students have selected one song from this current year that they will rest for most of the summer. They will re-learn it from scratch at the end of the summer. I hope that the break will give them a fresh perspective on the piece and help take the work to the next level. Assignment #5 is a fun ear training project - to pick out their favorite songs by ear. Intermediate and advanced students can also try to pick out the chords to the song. Assignment #6 is a listening project. I've given some students (the ones most inclined to do it) a list of composers and performers to check out on Youtube, everything from Bach to Dave Brubeck. They are to submit a report on each piece or performer they listen to. Naturally, they will earn their coveted Maestro Bucks for each report (to spend on prizes). One student plans to hang his listening list up in his room. He asked me to make the list in a large font so that it's the first thing he sees in the morning. Assignment #7 is probably one of the most fun projects. Some of my students are anime or manga otaku. I've tasked them with watching Nodame Cantabile and submitting reports on the music. This romance-comedy revolves around a girl who has a superb ear and a guy who is a musical technician. Each piece highlights at least one work (e.g. Brahms' Symphony no. 1). Yes, they will also earn Maestro Bucks for each report they submit. We've done audio/visual recordings of some of the trickier elements they will work on over the summer break. They also know that all they need to do is ask and I can quickly do up a "video demo" if they are stuck on something - within reason. Hopefully, some of these summer practice ideas appeal to students and teachers alike. For more summer music practice ideas, check out my article, "Fun Ways for Music Students to Stay in Shape in the Summer".

Arca & Arca Perform Pia no Jac

My students, my brother's students, our family, friends and I are exhausted from a weekend full of recitals. My studio recital took place on Saturday, while my brother's was yesterday. The kids did fairly well and there were many pleased parents and grandparents.
One thing we like to do is to perform at our studio recitals. The purpose is two-fold: to keep our own skills up and secondly, to show our students and their families that yes, we really can play.
This year, we have been exploring the music of Pia no Jac, a Japanese piano/cajon duo. The technical challenges are quite different from what we've encountered when we were taking lessons. 
Here's footage of our latest performance. First off is Crossbeats, which features Jay on piano and myself on the cajon:

The second is Habanera based on Bizet's Carmen. This time, I'm on the piano and Jay's playing the cajon:

I wonder how many of my students looked up "Pia no Jac" after the recital.
Want to explore Pia no Jac? Click on the CD below and off you go:


(c) 2011 by Musespeak(tm) and To the Wind(tm), Calgary, Alberta, Canada. All rights reserved.

New Videos on Musespeak Youtube Channel

Videos from some our performances at SAJETAA's Hana Matsuri are up on my Youtube Channel. Here's one of them:

Proceeds from the event will go to help the victims of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

We performed six Jpop numbers:

We're still playing around with the set but hope to perform it again soon.

(c) 2011 by Musespeak(tm), Calgary, AB, Canada. All rights reserved.

On Memorizing Music

Often, a piece of music becomes memorized after practicing it many times. However, for a piece to be truly memorized, musicians should incorporate more than one type of memorization. This is a great article on the different types of memory that music students can use, called "Music Memorization". Yes, it's similar to the VARK Learning Styles. Harmonic or analytical memory stems from read/write learning.

(c) 2011 by Musespeak(tm), Calgary, AB. All rights reserved.

Musings on One Fun Gig

Today I had the pleasure of performing background music at a 90th birthday party. The "birthday boy" is looking very hearty and hale. Both he and his wife could easily be mistaken for being 20 years younger. When I first spoke to the couple, they requested that I play a wide range of music as the youngest family member is 3 months old, while the "birthday boy" represents the top end. I really enjoyed putting this program together, which had everything from All of Me and Fly Me to the Moon to Avril Lavigne's Breakaway and Super Mario Brothers; with some improvising thrown in.

The great grandchildren came to chat with me about music, Guitar Hero II and karate while I played the Inspector Gadget Theme and Willy Wonka's Welcome Song. One six-year old asked if he could play with me so we jammed on a boogie pattern while his cousins bopped to the music and "comped" when the inspiration struck.

They said my hands moved pretty fast. Meanwhile, I was thinking, "I need to practice my scales even more!" I stayed to chat afterwards with one of the grandchidlren, a former coworker of mine whom I haven't seen in years. It was a pleasant surprise to see her there.

The gig wasn't without its glitches. My break was used up over a dropped key. When the party moved to the venue's dining room, I found the piano locked. I went to get the key when it fell into the piano. Three gentlemen (four if you count my six-year old assistant) tried to pull it out because it fell in the most inconvenient spot.

I also think perhaps the Heritage Park ghosts decided to play a practical joke on me as my pages kept flipping on their own during my Beatles songs and Breakaway. Perhaps it was their way of saying that they wanted more ragtime and boogie? Who knows?

With a bit of tweaking and revising, I think I can reuse the program at future gigs.

(c) 2008 by Musespeak(tm), Calgary, AB, Canada. All rights reserved.

Shining Stars

Week One of the music festivals is nearly over. It's been exhausting driving back and forth from North Calgary to High River to catch students. As soon as I walked into the house, it was back to a full afternoon/evening of teaching and practicing my own songs, soothing ansty parents, pushing stubborn students who are dragging their feet on the exam preparations (and assigning names of students to the influx of white hairs on my head) and collecting registrations for next year. My students who have played so far played as well as expected. Some were still scrambling till the last minute to memorize their songs (which were supposed to be memorized two months ago). Not surprisingly, their performances were wobbly. Some succumbed to nerves, while others fell back to bad habits that I had been trying to break for months.

There were a few shining stars. There's my nine-year old student R who is steady as a rock. Steady progress and steady work habits. She got excellent comments at the festival and a mark just a couple of hairs off Honours with Distinction for her composition. Now, we just have to work at getting her rhythm in trouble spots steady as a rock.

Then there's my little showman S. This 11-year old consistently selects toe tapping songs that get the entire audience engaged in the performance. It also helps that he really gets into whatever song he's playing and flirts with the audience with his sparkling eyes and smile.

The next two are opposites: C is a 15-year old with a really good musical ear. She improvises for hours at home. After months of hounding her to write down her song, she finally did for the festival. She just missed Distinction by a couple of hairs also with her composition.

Finally, 12-year old D. She's been with me since the beginning of my teaching career. She's gone from a quiet and shy girl who only wants to play what's on the page, scared to make a mistake to a performer who impressed the adjudicator with her beautiful improvisations based on a catchy tune.

I just have a handful of students yet to perform. Then, my students and I will tear apart their songs a few more times to work on attaining a higher level of passion and technical precision for the next round of recitals and exams.

May 12, 2007 note: I need to add one more "shining star" to this list. Ten-year old R surprised his parents and myself earlier in the year when he expressed his desire to take his Gr. 5 piano exam in June. Since then, we've been working hard on his songs and technique. Fingering and rhythm have always been a challenge for him (or perhaps it's just the detail work). Prior to his performance last Saturday, I had him tap out his opening rhythm to Christopher Norton's Danger Danger. As I thought, the rhythm was a little off. I corrected the rhythm and had him practice it while I went to give two of my students who were also performing a pep talk.

When this guy is "on" he can draw the audience in. And that morning, R was "on". He nailed that rhythm and delivered the strongest performance in his class. (c) 2007 by Musespeak(tm), Calgary, AB, Canada. All rights reserved.