Monday, May 10, 2010

Junior Academy 2010

The Icelandic volcano was cooperative enough to allow me to spend 5 days in Utrecht, Holland to work with the Junior Academy of the Utrecht Liszt International Piano Competition. Six very talented teenagers were gathered by the Competition, all recent winners of other competitions and recommended by industry professionals. Two were from China, currently living in Holland and New York City respectively. Another came from Japan. One came from Budapest, Hungary, and two others from former East Bloc countries, Georgia and Uzbekistan, the latter currently living in England.
These young rising stars were offered the opportunity to work with three very different pianists - Paul Badura-Skoda, Emile Naumoff and myself - and the program was designed to emphasize the differences in our approaches, hopefully not in a confusing way but in a complementary way. Badura-Skoda's experience with the Classical repertoire as a performer, teacher and scholar is probably unmatched today, except perhaps for Alfred Brendel. Emile Naumoff embodies the once-common role of pianist/composer, and brings a piercing analysis from the perspective of someone who boths creates and recreates. I approached the week-long workshop with the idea of opening their minds a little and sowing the seeds of their future transition from student to independent, autonomous thinking musicians. I had time to introduce two exercises from my Deeper Piano Studies workshops: Learning a piece with the keyboard, and Cooking.

Two public sessions were devoted to the general idea of Practicing, and in particular, practicing with using a keyboard, and Mistakes and how to prepare for them and deal with them in concert. Specifically, we looked at the Toccata by Liszt R. 197a, an obscure work of 4 pages from an undetermined period of his career. It was pretty doubtful that any of these young pianists, in their few shorts years of studies, would have come across this work, so the experiment would successfully allow them to learn a piece without ever having heard it or played it. Unfortunately, one of the participants revealed himself to be a connoisseur of obscure repertoire, and had heard the piece once before. There is a youtube recording of it available, so I'll have to search even harder next time to come up with something completely new!
The gist of the exercise is to create a feeling of anticipation and desire so great that it would be impossible to mistake it for anything else. The act of daily practicing can be a tedious one, and the focus necessary to sustain it over a long period of time must be energized by some sort of desire. It can be a positive desire, or it can even be a negative desire (to avoid a future humiliation, for example), but the motivation must come from somewhere. The act of performing, on the other hand, is a highly emotional one, and that energy must be recognized and channeled in the most productive way in order for a performance to be successful.
By holding off on the first act of playing, something that all six participants admitted would be their first step in learning this piece if left to their own methods, a true desire was being cultivated that even the most emotionally illiterate could not fail to recognize.
This is an exclusively mental exercise, so the challenge for myself was to couch the work in the most kinetic manner possible. Both the language barrier (all non-native English speakers of varying degrees of sophistication, from little to passable) and the age-appropriateness demanded a more physical, active approach rather than an intellectual, analytic approach. It was difficult, but in the end I was happy with how things went.
We focused on meditation and imagery, and of course the actual performance of the piece itself, which was an extremely intense emotional adventure for them, particularly because it was in front of an actual audience!
As for the cooking, these kids (age 14-17) threw themselves into the exercise. We arrived at the home of our hosts to discover the absolutely perfect locale - a typically compact Dutch home, but with two kitchens! Now that's my kind of home!
We invaded the place and took stock of the equipment and work surfaces. The ingredients were late to arrive, stuck in traffic from Amsterdam. We scoped out the area for utensils, pots, pans, cutting boards. The young pianists started off with a little trepidation - aside from one of them, none of them had ever cooked before, and I was asking them to make a full menu of hand-made linguini, a bolognese sauce, a salad and a fruit crumble. The pace was slow at first, as they took care following my guidance, attentively and precisely cutting the fruits and vegetables, delicately pushing the flour and eggs around. Finally, the tipping point of messiness was breached, and their gestures started to resemble something more like what we see on cooking videos.
Our 7:30pm dinner time came and went, but we eventually sat down at 8:30, with 6 guests in addition to the 6 pianist/chefs. The general consensus was that it was certainly edible, and that it was actually quite good, especially for first time chefs!
The second night, after another intense day of work, the six arrived at the house for another try at the meal, this time with different teams attacking different parts of the menu. We had one person call in sick, so only 5 people were going to do the job of 6. And we had a hard deadline this time for dinner.
The wonderful aspect to this exercise is that we can start seeing the results of our previous night's experience immediately - no need to wait to taste the food to know that things were improving. There was a quiet concentration in the kitchen, with occasional calls out from one person to another with a request for advice, a measurement, or a tool. The kitchen got less messy this time, and pots and pans were located and put to use with hardly a question. The efficiency of the kitchen was very satisfying to watch.
As we sat down to dinner, on time and much more serene, we all agreed that there were elements of it that were improved, but other elements were actually less good than the previous night. A great lesson in the real goal of practicing - not with a focus on improving, but with a focus on sensing, remembering and learning. If we had come in without having the previous night's experiment, without going through each element of the menu with a fine-tooth comb to tease out techniques and strategies, without making a plan for the next evening, we would probably have made the same thing, but less well, with less mastery, and certainly with less enjoyment and satisfaction. Lesson learned!

I was forced to leave early due to the volcano, and so missed hearing the young pianists perform their "real" repertoire. Instead, I only heard them play a piece they had learned without practicing (Liszt's Toccata) and a Chopin Mazurka that they had learned in a day without much training in the style of mazurkas (Emile Naumoff's exercise). I'm sure there will be ample opportunities to hear them in the near future, in competitions or concert halls. They are all exceedingly talented. I can tell you that even though I did not hear them play, but because I could see that they had the inner talents necessary to succeed at this difficult activity they have devoted their young lives to, playing the piano.

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