Tenure is a cornerstone of academia. With it, faculty researchers are protected from outside entities. We can pursue paths of inquiry without the fear of someone firing them because that someone doesn't agree with that path. We can even play the complete sonatas by Hindemith for the research portion of our job and not worry about someone not liking or understanding this composer. We can conduct embryonic stem cell research and not worry about religious entities putting an end to our work. We can conduct ground-breaking cancer research and not have to deal with questions from unqualified boards.
A favorite argument is: "If you're doing the right thing as a professor and teaching the students to the best of your ability, then why do you need tenure?"
1. Teaching is only 40% of our job
2. Who decides what the "right thing" is?
Another argument is that other public employees are not granted these securities. This proves that they have no respect for education and teachers. Also, other public employees are not trying to eradicate cancer.
This is a continuation of the right wing attack on education and their desire to create a large population of stupid people. They want to privatize education, have it run like a business, offer high-end, expensive education for those who can afford it, and have no regard for the quality of instruction for lower income people.
One thing about underperforming tenured faculty: they exist and it is a problem, which needs to be addressed and is being addressed. They are holding positions which could be held by younger, hungrier, and more active faculty members. But getting rid of tenure is not the answer
We are already seeing the budgetary effects on our public institutions. This leads to tenure faculty lines being turned into adjunct lines. This saves money, because these faculty members are barely earning a living wage. Think about it: they get about $3,000 per course they teach. That's three hours a week of contact time, which at 15 weeks is about $67 per hour. This does not include prep time and grading, which if I take my wife as an example is an extra 3 hours per week. So now we are down to $33 per hour, before taxes. In order to survive, these faculty members must teach at least three courses per semester. This in turn leaves them no time to further their own career and conduct serious research.
Another aspect of the job of tenured faculty is to provide Service. We serve our School, we serve our college, we serve our university, we serve our community, and we serve our profession. This is about 20% of our job, which is about 8 hours per week. I guarantee that we do more than that. I typically sit on about 20 student recital committees per semester. That alone is about 40 hours. Plus serving on committees, advising students, etc. All of this important service goes away when you're not on a tenure-track or tenured profession.
It is precisely because of simple-minded politicians, who have no idea what is actually going on in academia, that we need tenure. Education needs to be run by people who actually know something about education. Betsy DeVos, Trump's nominee for Secretary of Education, hasn't seen the inside of a public educational institution, nor has she ever taught. Scott Walker, Wisconsin's anti-education governor, is a college dropout with a 2.59 GPA. Brad Zaun, Iowa's senator who introduced the bill to get rid of tenure, attended Grandview College and Ellsworth Community College, unknown if he actually graduated. Rick Brattain, the Missouri politician who wants to do the same there, has a high-school degree. I am not bringing up their lack of education as a means to discredit them or ridicule them. I don't believe that a college education makes you qualified for everything. I don't think that one needs a college degree in order to be successful in life. However, I do believe that if you are going to have informed opinions on something, you'd better actually know something about the matter. I would never tell an auto mechanic which tool to use, or tell a doctor which diagnosis to make, just because I think I have an idea on the matter.
This is all incredibly troubling and it is important that we fight this with all we have. We have just experienced what can happen when we think "oh, this will never happen." We live in an environment where the ground is ripe for an all out assault on the very fabric of what we stand for. We cannot allow allow this to happen.
Betsy DeVos will be the new Secretary of Education, pending senate confirmation. She is married to an heir of the Amway Corp., and is a former chairwoman of the Republican party in Michigan. She used to be on the board of the Kennedy Center and donated $25 million for the establishment of an arts management program there. She is also a huge believer in school choice/vouchers.
This got me thinking: our school system is obviously broken and has been for a long time. I have often said that I believe the Republican party has consciously tried to dumb down the populace, as it is much easier to control in that way. In recent years they have led an all-out assault on teachers. In Wisconsin they doomed the tenure system. Now, they are trying to create a registry of professors who teach pro-liberal/progressive ideals/anti-conservative propaganda.
The solution is not school choice. That is a bandaid, which gives parents the feeling that they are in control of their children's education. What needs to be fixed is the fact that parents feel like they have to make that choice in the first place. No school should be that bad that parents want to remove their children from it. Every school should be excellent. And it should be the government's responsibility to provide that.
Over time, we need to raise the standards of our curriculum. We need to raise our expectations of our children. We need to invest in the arts - every study shows how beneficial they are. We need to teach a fact-based curriculum, in line with modern trends of thinking and with the civilized world. Yes, we need to attempt to return to be a member of the civilized world.
We need to roll back our investment in sports, other than general physical education. Sports in this country has gotten completely out of hand and it is just another thing (including crappy TV) to distract us from what is going on. This is at all levels, including college.
Finally, we have to, as a society, get to a point where we once again respect education and being educated. We must want our leaders to be the smartest, most intelligent, most experienced people possible for the job. Isn't that why so many of us have this worship of our "Founding Fathers"? Weren't they sooo smart that everything they penned should be held true nearly 250 years later? I believe that we should hold our current leaders to that same standard.
So, while I am impressed with some of DeVos' experiences, especially in the arts and in clean energy, I do not believe that she has the experience or education to fill the position of Secretary of Education. When it comes to education, she is an ideologue and has no clue as to what the real problems we face in returning our country to first world status.
Every athletic motion begins with an initial movement in the opposite direction of the desired outcome. Here a few examples from the world of sports:
Notice how the golfer starts his swing by pulling the club away from the target, gathering energy in his body through torque, and then releases this into the ball, and ultimately following through.
Here is a fascinating video from Harvard University on the Mechanics of Throwing, along with the human history of throwing things.
Notice again how the arm is cocked backwards, in opposite direction to the target before moving forward, releasing the ball, and following through.
Finally, a video on the biomechanics of kicking a ball:
Once again, we find a back swing, which loads up the body, the impact or contact, and finally the follow through.
Piano playing happens in much the same way. In fact, every musician should be doing the same thing. A conductor gives the pick-up to the first downbeat, thus preparing the entire orchestra for their entrance, giving them the tempo of the piece, and giving the musicians a chance to get their first notes prepared. Imagine a conductor starting with his/her hands raised and suddenly dropping them for the downbeat. The sound would be harsh, rushed, and not synchronized. Imagine a wind player would start without inhaling...actually that is impossible. Equally impossible would be a percussionist initiating a stroke without raising the mallet.
As pianists we must therefore think about these motions as well. I believe we think about depressing the keys far too much and not nearly enough about our motions AWAY from the keys, moving upwards and not downwards.
Why is this? For one it lies, I believe, in the nature of the instrument. The piano is in essence is a big hunk of furniture. We have little intimate connection with it. We don't caress it like string players do with their instruments and we surely don't put it in or on our mouths. How much more intimate can it get than with wind instruments? And so, piano players, especially young ones, find themselves concerned with "hitting" and depressing the keys. And for better or for worse, we can achieve a rather decent tone without concerning ourselves too much with these various directions of motion.
Another reason could lie in the fact that many pianists are not reliant upon other musicians. Therefore they do not have to rely upon starting together, breathing together, etc. All that matters, or so they think, is what is going on in their head. They know when the downbeat occurs and that is suffice. Unfortunately it is not.
Finally, much of what I am advocating involves motions away from the keys. And while I am not saying that we should lift our hands way off the keyboard, the thought of losing contact with the keys can be scary. However it does not have to be. But this fear keeps us from moving freely across our instruments, it keeps us stuck to the keys and it forces us to "push" from the keys, thus generating a lot of uncontrolled force into the keys. This in turn causes an unpredictable, uncontrolled, and often harsh sound.
In the next article, I will be demonstrating these athletic concepts as they should occur at the keyboard.
I often refer to piano playing as the "Olympics of the small muscles". It is important to consider oneself an athlete when playing and practicing the piano. High level athletes take care of their bodies and minds, and we need to as well. The better we feel, both physically and mentally, the better our productivity is, and the better our efficiency is.
Although this Blog will focus mostly on tone production, I would be remiss not to talk about warm-ups and cool-downs. These are essential elements in our daily practice and performance regiment, which are unfortunately often neglected. No athlete would begin a practice session without warming up. Warm-ups are intend to actually raise the body temperature. This warmer temperature has positive effects on allowing muscles and tendons to become more extensible, allows for more blood flow to the muscles, more oxygen in the muscles, better efficiency in muscle contraction, and by carrying out functional activities, neural pathways are activated, which enhances reaction time in the actual performance/practice.
Pianists typically limit their warm-ups to a few scales and arpeggios. While these are important aspects of a good warm-up, they are actually just the last step before we start the actual practice session. To follow along with what other elite athletes do, I recommend the following step:
These stretches cover everything from the neck, shoulders, elbows, wrists, and fingers. They are also similar in concept to the stretches used by baseball players and golfers.
One final thought about these warm-up exercises: never do anything mindlessly. While you are doing these stretches and exercises be sure to be thinking about your breathing and about your upcoming practice session. Make a plan about what you want to accomplish. You might find that thoughts come into your head, which will disturb your practicing. Use this opportunity to free yourself from these thoughts. It can become a meditative, Zen-like experience. This will allow you to have positive and productive practice session.
These are actually easier to achieve, as cool-downs are a continuation of your practice session, just at a slower and less intensive pace. So you can either play some slow scales and arpeggios at the end of your session, or you can even play through a slow piece or a fast piece at a slow tempo. Avoid any kind of difficult passages during the last 10 minutes of your practice session. If you have a history of piano related injuries (tendinitis, carpal tunnel, etc.) you may also want to consider taking an anti-inflammatory, and/or ice your shoulders, elbows, and/or wrists. The next time you see a major league pitcher giving an interview after a game, notice the ice sleeve he is wearing on his pitching arm.
As pianists we are constantly concerned with how we depress the keys. We think about key speed, finger position in relationship to the keys, playing from the key vs. above the key, etc. All of these things are incredibly important aspects of creating a desired sound. Whether it is supposed to be harsh, soft, percussive, sung or whispered - how the key descends and therefore how the hammer strikes the strings is of utmost importance.
That however is not the whole story. In fact, it barely covers half of the story. The neglected side of research and thought in piano technique is the half of our playing which doesn't involve direct sound production at all. While we are depressing the keys 50% of the time, we are releasing the keys the other 50% of the time. It is my firm belief that we need to spend at least as much time with that half of our playing. Therefore this is the first in a series of blog entries dealing with this subject. I will explore topics such as
So, stay tuned!
There are two types of people - those who put people into two types, and those who don't. A similar, but much more interesting statement along the same lines applies to music. There are two types of pieces - ones which start with a pick-up and one which do not. Of course, this is a true statement, but you might also ask yourself, what's the point?
Recognizing what kind of a piece it is, is essential to interpreting a piece, to knowing where to employ rubato, and to thoroughly understanding the phrase structure.
Before I get into more detail, one bit of clarification: just because a piece is fundamentally a non-pick-up piece does not mean that one will never find a pick-up (and vica versa). Pieces ARE fundamentally one or the other and that can be figured out at the beginning of the piece. But again, the composer can of course explore the opposites in various places/sections in the given piece.
If you are dealing with pick-ups, avoid taking time between the pick-up note(s) and the downbeat. By all means explore taking time AFTER the downbeat.
If you are not dealing with pick-ups, take time before the downbeat and not after.
Very rarely should one take time both before and after a downbeat.
The phrase structure will be informed by being aware of pick-ups or lack thereof. The composer will not always denote the phrasing in their scores. So pay attention to whether the music moves towards a beat or from a beat. This has huge musical ramifications and even has technical importance as well. Muscular relaxation will change depending on where phrases start and end.
Let's look at one of my favorite teaching pieces, Chopin's a minor waltz op. posth. The pick-up to measure 1 should be strictly in tempo, moving towards the downbeat. Time can (if desired/necessary) can be taken to assist the LH getting from beat one to two, and the same can be said for between beats 2 and 3. Beat three of the first measure is again a pick-up, even though not notated here. Therefore the young pianist should avoid taking time between the second a-minor chord and the downbeat of measure two, even though it would be more comfortable.
In measure three the melodic notes A-G-F should be considered pick-ups.
The rest in the LH in measure 8 needs to be adhered to, thus allowing the E in the RH to belong to the following measure 9. A clear pedal change on beat three is absolutely necessary.
In measures 17-24, Chopin has a short excursion into a non pick-up section. This helps support the notion of a more sighing character and technically assists the pianist by allowing some space between the repeated notes across the bar lines. This make the ornaments easier to execute.
I am not saying that time needs to be taken every time these situations occur. Quite the contrary: I believe that pianists of all ages and abilities tend to take too many liberties. Our composers were really good. They don't need a lot of our "help". Rubato is an important tool. Knowing where to use it and knowing how judiciously to use it, is a true art form. Applying the ideas presented here will help with precisely this.
I just realized that it has been since September since I've posted a blog. This of course coincides with the beginning of this academic year. And it's been quite a year! So I thought I'd just share some of the highlights.
Two CDs of mine have been released: The Complete Piano and Wind Chamber Music of Francis Poulenc, and Pieces and Passages with violinist Scott Conklin and pianist Jason Sifford. (See "Discography" for details.) The Poulenc has been languishing in my desk drawer for some time. It was actually recorded back in 2006. After being rejected by a few labels and the suicide of my dear friend and colleague Mark Weiger (this represents his last solo recording), I wasn't able to muster the energy to deal with this recording. However now that it is finally released (on MSR), I have realized some things about myself. First of all, when dealing with performances and recordings, you must distance yourself from the result. As long as you did your work and gave it your best effort, then the result is what it is. Secondly, I realized that I am a good pianist. I have earned the right to be proud of my work. And no one can take that away from me.
I was also promoted to Full Professor (the board of regents still need to vote upon it, but, fingers crossed, that should be a formality). I am very grateful to me colleagues, peers, and outside reviewers for their support, mentorship, and time. Fun fact: I got tenure and promotion to full professor while being in provisional facilities after the flood of 2008.
In January I recorded my next album, this time with the fabulous tuba player John Manning. This is a great example of where instrument or repertoire (both are great) do not matter. Playing with a great musician like John is such an honor and pleasure.
I was part of the search committee for our new oboe professor. My time at the University of Iowa has been closely linked to the oboe studio. When I arrived back in 2003, Mark Weiger soon became my best friend and mentor. His death in 2008 was huge blow. That same year, the great flood decimated our school. In 2009 Andrew Parker assumed the position of oboe professor and quickly established himself as one of the greatest oboist of his generation, as well as an amazing musician. I had the great pleasure of performing with him multiple times, as well as recording a fantastic CD, which should be released any day now. We are very sad to see him go to The University of Texas, Austin. But I am also happy for him! Starting this fall, we are extremely excited to welcome Courtney Miller to our faculty. She is an exciting, energetic oboist, with many fantastic ideas. She is a wonderful, fun person and a great teacher. I am really looking forward to future collaborations with her and I am sure that she is going to continue our great oboe tradition, as we move into our new School of Music in the fall of 2016.
For the first time in awhile, I did a couple of solo recitals. (I've focusing more on concerti lately.) I had actually forgotten how much I enjoyed it. So I vow to do them more regularly!
Finally, on a personal note, this year has a been a year of great growth. My step sons Gabriel and Ethan are growing up before my very eyes. They are becoming so mature, articulate, and independent. I am so proud of them. Frederic, my 2 y/o is quite something... He keeps me on my toes. It is so exciting to see his development. I just wish I could spend even more time with him.
Finally, the growth of my relationship with my beautiful wife Heather has been amazing. Our love gains strength every day. I am so devoted to her. I would not have been able to have all of my professional success without her being my rock, my cheerleader, and my inspiration.
We are often reminded to "think outside the box". Many problems are unique and require unique solutions. We can gain valuable insights when we look at problems from a variety of angles and vantage points. When we are in the box, we often get in our own way. Removing ourselves from the equation allows us to observe the problem in a more objective manner. We can then actually see the box from all sides and see how we fit into it.
Imagine you are struggling with a fast sixteenth-note passage. Your fingers are always getting "stuck". You practice it over and over again. Slowly, with exercises, quickly - nothing seems to be helping. Often your body and mind will try to solve the problem in a way consistent with the notation: in groups of four, 1-2-3-4. However, musically speaking it is likely that the grouping should be: 2-3-4-1. This creates direction towards the beat and not from it. This allows the muscles to relax at a different time in the beat/measure/passage and thus will (hopefully) allow you to master it. A more musical approach will almost always solve a technical problem. Another example would be leaps. If they are causing you problems in a certain direction, turn it around! If the score calls for leaps from bottom to top, try skipping the first note and leap from top to bottom. This re-directing of the muscles and the mental outlook will allow you to be relaxed in places where you weren't until then.
A further advantage of observing problems from a variety of viewpoints: One actually has a better shot at truly understanding what the problem is. Too often, whether it is in politics, relationships, or piano playing, we simply do not understand the problem. Unfortunately, we also are not aware that we don't understand it, or we are unwilling to admit it. But truly understanding a problem is usually a surefire way to solving it. The solution is the easy part.
In the examples above, we thought we knew that the problem was a certain leap or passage, when in reality it was an incorrect musical outlook on the passage. Another "favorite" problem students have is in memorization. They come to their lessons, mess up the memory, and invariably say: "It was perfect at home." And I believe them! So what is the problem? There are actually two of them. First of all, students trust themselves too much in their practicing. When they are playing through their pieces, from memory, they are not second-guessing themselves. They are simply playing. And when they do have small slips, they happily play through them, assuming that it will be better next time. However, when they show up to their lesson, they suddenly start to question their preparation. They start to worry about what comes next. The little devil on their shoulder taunting them all the way through. This will invariably lead to a collapse. In these cases I am always reminded of a German saying, which pertains to relationships: "Vertrauen ist gut, Kontrolle ist besser" - (I paraphrase) "Trusting someone is good, but checking up on them is better." While I do not subscribe to this saying as it pertains to relationships, I do like to use with practicing vs. performing. When you're practicing, trusting yourself is good, but checking up on yourself is better. When you are performing, trusting yourself is the ONLY way to go.
The second part of the equation once again takes us outside the box and we realize that we might not completely understand the problem. We spend all of our time memorizing the notes, the rhythm, dynamics and articulations. We know the harmonies and melodies. And yet, we still have memory slips. What we have forgotten to memorize is WHEN to recall the music. It is just as important as WHAT to memorize. The image I instill in my students is the following: imagine walking down a long hallway with many locked doors in your way. It is dark, with the exception of lights over each door. You have the keys to each door. They are numbered and there is absolutely no secret as to which key fits into which lock. As you walk towards the door and enter into the halo of the light, you pull out the key, slide it into the lock, and open the door all in one motion. And then you continue on to the next door. If you pull out the keys too soon, you can't find the right one, since it is dark. If you do it too late, you will walk into the door. Like everything else, these moments of recollection need to be consciously decided upon so that in performance they are recalled subconsciously.
The next time you encounter a problem (in any environment), see if you can look at things differently. Students, become your own teacher. Teachers, become your own students.
"Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Albert Einstein's famous quote is unfortunately often forgotten. As piano teachers and piano students we need to constantly remember these wise words.
For teachers: It is our responsibility to tailor our teaching style to the personality of each individual student. The younger the student, the more this is necessary. Some students need small bite-sized pieces of information, some do better with bigger concepts. Some need to move around the room more, so do just fine sitting at the keyboard for the duration of their lesson. Not every method book works for every child. Chordal, middle C, intervallic - we need to be well-versed in all approaches and be able to assess our students to decide which method suits which child. More importantly, we need to admit if our initial assessment was wrong and fix it. It's ok to change methods. Don't force a square peg into a round hole.
As the students get older, their personalities are more defined, so that it is easier for us to address a teaching style which will be more successful. They are also more adaptable to a variety of teaching styles, so that we can expect them to try different approaches. This is an important aspect of teaching college level students. They need to see a wide variety of learning possibilities and environments, so that they too can become adaptable when they become teachers. Nevertheless, professors need to be aware of the personalities of their students as well.
For students: I am often reminded of the insanity quote when I listen to students practicing. One thing I like to do is to tell a student that there is "something wrong" in a certain measure/passage and that they must figure out what it is. So I have them play it through again, often slowly, to see if they catch it. More often than not, the mistake is still there. So they do it again and again and again...hoping that the problem will magically disappear. So then I ask them to change "something". This often results in them actually catching the mistake, as they are now focused on what can possibly be changed. Dynamics, articulations, accidentals, rhythm are all things that are often wrong and they know it. This approach allows the student to fix their mistakes by actually understanding what the problem is. Telling students their mistakes is fixing the effect. Having them figure it out often fixes the cause. Students, when you are practicing, think about this. Don't simply play a difficult passage over and over, assuming that repetition will solve the problem. While slow practice is often a good thing to do, it not necessarily the solution to every problem. Doing something slowly will involve different movements and angles, which might have to be changed at higher speeds. Analyze carefully what you are doing - how is the alignment of your body, how about the elbows, fingering, etc. Then change something - anything - and think about the results. What happens if you lean in a bit, hold your elbows out a little, crouch, etc.? You will find that every change you make will have some sort of effect on your playing. And while it might not be the desired effect in that moment, you start to learn about yourself, your body, and what all is possible. You start to become your own best teacher.
This fall I am going up for promotion to full professor. In preparation for that, I have been putting together my materials. That includes putting together giant three ring binders of programs, syllabi, CDs, reviews, conference books, articles, thank you cards...basically my professional life on paper. While extremely tedious, this is an exercise, which I would recommend that everyone should do from time to time. It is an excellent way to take stock of the past, to think about where you are at the moment, and to be inspired to think of new ideas for the future. I can see very clearly, laid out on the table, what all I have accomplished in the past five years. I am very proud of that. But it also shows me what all I have yet to do and that excites me. It is easy to go back to school, thinking "Just another fall semester, teaching the same classes, the same students, working with the same colleagues..." But when you realize how different and exciting things can be, what great opportunities are out there, then everything seems new and motivating!
So, I encourage every student, every teacher, regardless of age or field, to search for new perspectives, new goals, new ideas, and new dreams. Otherwise, there really isn't a reason to do it.