Category Archives: piano performances

How to Kick The Blues, or, A Chance Meeting with a Living Louisiana Music Legend.

It’s been a tough couple of weeks for me and, I think, for a lot of people.  One day recently, I had a meeting that was really demoralizing and left me in a total funk where nothing would spark my interest.

 

Fortunately, the next morning, I had my own piano lesson (a two-hour workout on a Bach fugue, not much time to think about much else) and after the lesson, I decided I would go piano shopping, something I’d been meaning to do for months but just never actually had done. I think I was mainly trying to keep myself busy to distract myself from the doldrums.

 

At the second store I went into — where I fell in love with a grand piano that I probably can’t afford but very well might buy –there was just the owner, a man I’d known since middle school, and an elderly gentleman hanging out in the corner.  (I knew the owner because he had sold my parents their piano and because he used to let us use his store to rehearse five and four piano arrangements back in high school.)  Anyway, I’m talking to the owner and looking lustfully at pianos that cost more than my car, when the owner introduced me to the elderly gentleman in the corner as a two-time Louisiana Music Hall of Fame inductee(?).  The man, who introduced himself by his real name, not his stage name, told me about his music and after a minute, I asked if I could record him to share with my students and to preserve a little music history, and he said yes.

 

Unfortunately, I really wasn’t prepared to do a full-on interview, but I learned a good bit talking to him and managed to have sense to film at least a little of it.  His stage name had been Roy “Boogie Boy” Perkins and he was a singer and pianist in the ’50s.

 

Here’s a few samples of his music from back then:

Not bad, right? I have a particular weakness for this era in music, so needless to say, I was thrilled.

Here’s what Perkins had to say about his place in music history:

 

Sadly, I didn’t keep filming because he told me that when he was young, he lived nextdoor to his grandmother who had an old player piano that no one played. One day, he heard Lloyd Price on the radio and decided to try to replicate the sound and found out that he could just play. So his grandmother gave him the piano and that was his start. He didn’t mention ever taking any formal music instruction, just learning from the radio.

 

He told me his stage name was given to him by some country musician he was playing with (I’ve forgotten the name) and he later added the “boogie boy” part to make it go more with the style of music he enjoyed playing. Over the years, he made music, he also worked as a draftsman, worked offshore on oil and gas rigs, and at some point, became a minister. And, man, did he hate the term “swamp pop.” Now, I’ll think twice when I use it 🙂 [Side note: This man knew Elvis and Cossimo Matassa and other amazing artists of his day.  He didn’t care much for Elvis’ dancing, I think, but said he appreciated Elvis’ gospel recordings.]

 

After a little prodding, he agreed to play for me, even though he said he hadn’t much played in years. Fortunately, I had enough sense to record it (even if I did record vertically (oops)). Interestingly, he didn’t play his own song but played Lloyd Price, perhaps because talking about his early days playing made him nostalgic?  Hope you enjoy:

 

 

I nearly fainted with happiness, so I hope this also lifts your spirits like it did mine!

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Playing musically through the use of adjectives, metaphors, and imagery

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I.  Summary of recent article and its suggested exercise

I recently read an article that suggested a few exercises to help musicians play with more musicality.  The first exercise involves brainstorming a list of adjectives – at least 100 adjectives so that you (or the person you are directing to do the exercise) is forced to move beyond the more quotidienne adjectives such as “happy and sad.”  Once you have the list, the author suggests that you take five of these adjectives, all contrasting, and experiment with playing  a passage of music in such a way as to evoke those descriptors.  So for example, you might play the opening of Fur Elise hysterically, exhaustedly, furiously, nervously, and sullenly.  When you do this, assuming you are doing it successfully, each iteration of the phrase should be markedly different in shading, articulation, tempo/rubato, and other expressive devices.  For example, a hysterical rendering of the opening of Fur Elise, might be at an allegro tempo with an accelerando feeling and would likely be forte or involve a rather drastic crescendo.  But it could also waver between two emotions very quickly and therefore go from fast to slow, loud to soft, legato to marcato, accelerando to ritardando to communicate that.

By contrast, a rendering of the opening phrase which would communicate exhaustedness, would probably be heavy handed and slow, like a windup doll that was puttering out, running out of steam.

One point the author makes is that, ideally, you would want to try this exercise out with at least one partner.  When playing the excerpt, you would have them try to guess the adjectives which you are trying to evoke.  As the author mentions, if they cannot guess, you need to revisit your attempt.  The author says:

 It’s interesting to note that when the performer’s intention isn’t well-formed or clear, the audience response is invariably inconsistent. On the other hand, when it’s ‘real,’ it’s easy to deduce that emotions don’t lie. They seem to bypass the intellect and leap straight into the music, through the performer to the audience.

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II.  Thoughts on the suggested exercise

I love it to a certain extent although I think it would be best to work on applying different emotions to technique and other exercises.  That way, you can focus on defining one (or a few) emotions for a piece and really work on committing to it.  Plus, it seems best to integrate this kind of work into a routine practice rather than just working on it with the occasional musical passage.

The listing idea is really brilliant.  Many students have not really thought much about a wide range of emotions and certainly don’t have the vocabulary for it all.  Having them brainstorm a list is great because it really makes them explore emotions past the simple “happy, sad, scared, tired” level.

To help students brainstorm their emotion list, ask them to look at the emoticon lists in their phones, ipads, and other devices and attach a word to each one.  That should get them started.  Once they’ve got that list, help them find synonyms (or most importantly, near-synonyms) for their initial list of words.

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III.  Related exercises designed to aid the musician to communicate

In college, my voice teacher used to have these flashcards sitting atop her piano.  On them were written nearly every kind of emotion and attitude I could think of at the time.  While I was vocalizing at the beginning of each lesson, she would randomly draw from the stack and hold up an emotion that I was to portray as I sang.  One of the purposes was to get me to work on the acting side of being a singer.  At the time, I hated it.  I was one of those singers (who had long been a student of piano) that didn’t understand the importance of acting and portraying a character.  I thought all that mattered was hitting notes and phrasing, etc.  I used to cringe with embarrassment when she would pull from the stack.

Now, as a teacher, I think that those exercises were some of the most important that I could have learned as a young singer and a young musician.  A singer must first and foremost connect with the audience on a visceral level – if she sings wonderfully but is stiff and has no stage presence, her performance will not be a success.

voice lessons

Jolly Stewart, my college voice professor

However, what I also learned from those lessons applies equally to the singer and the instrumentalist.  While stage presence and the ability to effectively convey the text of a song is vital, another perhaps more important benefit of “acting” is that if you portray the proper emotion effectively, much of the work of phrasing and planning appropriate breaths will follow.

This works for the pianist because even young children can understand that there is a difference in how you would play a scale if you were sad or happy.  To understand and feel a musical passage that way – rather than by the gut understanding of musical phrasing and interpretation that you develop, say, through discussions of the conventions of pedaling and listening to professional performances – will oftentimes result in more exciting and original interpretation.

At any rate, I think that all pianists and vocalists alike could benefit from the demands of the emotion flashcard stack and should routinely use it.

One last thought – one of the most effective methods of getting a topnotch performance out of a student I learned as a student myself.  In high school, in a lesson with Frank Heneghan, I was instructed to come up with a story line for the Debussy Prelude “Minstrels.”  The story was non-sensical but full of imagery – certain melody lines were associated with characters and types of personages.  Through this technique, I remember feeling like I really connected to the piece in a new way and my performance was vastly improved.  So here’s the advice, always try to come up with phrase by phrase imagery or story lines.  I often tell students that they should try and come up with a music video for the piece or to imagine a Fantasia-like cartoon to go with it.  That idea, in combination with the training in understanding a broad range of emotions, should produce some truly wonderful results.

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Frank Heneghan with student

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Fantasia is a great model for designing your own imagery

 

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Louis Moreau Gottschalk – Creole composer and virtuoso

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Louis Moreau Gottschalk (May 8, 1829 – December 18, 1869) was an American composer and pianist, best known as a virtuoso performer of his own romantic piano works. He spent most of his working career outside of the United States.

New Orleans-based Romantic composer and virtuosic pianist.  I’ve created a playlist on Spotify, which I’ve been enjoying this lovely afternoon.

From Wikipedia:

Gottschalk was born to a Jewish businessman from London and a Creole mother in New Orleans, where he was exposed to a variety of musical traditions. He had six brothers and sisters, five of whom were half-siblings by his father’s mulatto mistress.[1] His family lived for a time in a tiny cottage at Royal and Esplanade in the Vieux Carré. Louis later moved in with relatives at 518 Conti Street; his maternal grandmother Buslé and his nurse Sally had both been born in Saint-Domingue (known later as Haiti). Gottschalk played the piano from an early age and was soon recognized as a prodigy by the New Orleans bourgeois establishment. In 1840, he gave his informal public debut at the new St. Charles Hotel.

Only two years later at the age of 13, Gottschalk left the United States and sailed to Europe, as he and his father realized a classical training was required to fulfill his musical ambitions. The Paris Conservatoire, however, rejected his application without hearing him on the grounds of his nationality; Pierre Zimmermann, head of the piano faculty, commented that “America is a country of steam engines”. Gottschalk gradually gained access to the musical establishment through family friends.  [shocking – ed.]

By the 1860s, Gottschalk had established himself as the best known pianist in the New World. Although born and reared in New Orleans, he was a supporter of the Union cause during the American Civil War. He returned to his native city only occasionally for concerts, but Gottschalk always introduced himself as a New Orleans native.

NEW ORLEANS, let’s keep our greatest here at home from now on, okay?

You can check out his music here or watch this amateur (but good) video here:

 

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