Cascadia Composers’ “In Good Hands” concert: Bringing students the music of their time

Tomorrow's Oregon musicians play music by today's Oregon composers.

By MARIA CHOBAN

The young performers were warming up; some with Chopin Nocturnes, which they played with studied rubato (that technique where you hold a note longer than rhythmically intended or on-purpose rush a passage, all in the name of playing expressively) handed down from teachers. Or they held notes that meant nothing in the sentence surrounding them except self-indulgence or dry harmonic leading tone stresses—that is, staying on a penultimate note longer than usual and thereby, in theory, sustaining tension.

It wasn’t a promising sign.

The 29 young pianists, students of 13 Oregon Music Teachers Association teachers, were about to star in a public concert on a weekday summer afternoon at Portland Piano Company. . . to a packed house! I was not there to hear Chopin, or any other library or dead composer. That might be typical of a private teacher’s studio piano recital and I avoid those, as do my students who play whatever the hell they want in recitals — from improvised blues duets with their dads to pieces they write to chamber music or pop songs played and/or sung with their invited friends. They even bring me snippets from dead white guys like Beethoven they picked up, asking me to find the rest of that song for them to play, having no idea that song (“Für Elise” or “Moonlight” Sonata or whatever) was written over 200 years ago and not today.

Young hands played Oregon music at Portland Piano Company. Photo: Benji [Bao] Vuong.

Young hands played Oregon music at Portland Piano Company. Photo: Benji [Bao] Vuong.

My belief that students can show us the future was why I was participating in the “In Good Hands” concert, leading a performance of a recent piece by the dean of Oregon composers. I was also here to witness what I thought was an urban legend—the marrying of young students of OMTA teachers with music by local  Cascadia Composers.

For me, this type of event—the introduction of young impressionable performers to up-to-the-minute local music—is more important than hearing yet another touring artist playing yet another cycle of Beethoven sonatas or Bach’s Goldberg Variations (and needling my students to go hear them . . . which I won’t!). The way too many of us teach music is killing the music we love, and events like “In Good Hands” show us how to change.

Originally a yearly event presented under the auspices of the Portland Piano International summer festival, last year PPI forwent the summer festival and In Good Hands fell through the crack. This year PPI had a summer festival but forwent IGH. Enter superman: Daniel Brugh. A Cascadia Composer and budding impresario, Brugh brokered this year’s IGH event, bringing OMTA students together with Cascadia Composers compositions at Portland Piano Company on a sunny Thursday afternoon a couple of weeks ago.

The warm-ups that had worried me gave no clue about what the students were about to deliver. The studied, handed-down rubato and other standard expressive devices I heard the students dutifully and tediously play on the 19th century standards made me smile and remember my own experience with my own Teutonic Portland piano teacher, Nellie Tholen, who hated my self-indulgent escapades with Chopin, placated only when I’d play along with recordings of Rubenstein (unbeknownst to her), bringing back to next week’s lesson a version she could stomach.

Rubato is a lot like learning to cook. You use every herb and spice in every dish you try out. It takes years to cull out the unoriginal seasonings and concoct a personal taste. I stay out of teaching rubato to my students, trusting they’ll find their own style, sincerely and ebulliently cheering them on even when inwardly my eyes pop at new examples of over-the-top. The same goes for choosing the music students should learn with.

By the time we got to Cascadia Composer Lisa Marsh’s Along the Road, played with intuitive understanding by a student, chosen by her teacher who just felt this piece was meant for her, I discovered a pattern. The difference between the Chopin and the Marsh: My own heady amazement at a young student negotiating a tortured Chopin museum piece, versus total emotional connection by the student playing Marsh. All these students could actually connect with this music of the present. They did not have to contrive a 19th century sentimental, romantic rubato or have handed down to them a template for where to slow up, hold a note or speed up. They totally got the pieces of their own time! It took me three-quarters through the program to figure out I was emotionally immersed along with them and not (as usual in recitals) critiquing with bland detachment.

Here and Now

Riddle: What’s cuter than a smiling pint-sized pianist performing in concert in a frilly dress playing the heck out of Mooshi & Sparky, a piano song recently written especially for her, titled after her dog and cat by a composer sitting in the audience?

Give up?

Nothing!

I have found in my own teaching studio that students gravitate toward the pieces of their own time: Today’s pop is tomorrow’s classical music. And please don’t offer the opinion that pop music by Rihanna or Lady Gaga is garbage because I’ll counter with Max Reger. Garbage exists, probably in that oft quoted ratio of 10:1. Universal classics exist too, regardless of when they were written. Moonlight SonataWild HorsemanAlla TurcaClocksAxel FWaterfall. . . any two of the universals are most likely being played simultaneously by different students in my studio who have discovered them on their own, not even knowing the titles!

 Shadi Talaee plays Jan Mittelstaedt's "Mooshi and Sparki." Photo: Benji [Bao] Vuong.

Portland’s Shadi Talaee plays Jan Mittelstaedt’s “Mooshi and Sparky.” Photo: Benji [Bao] Vuong.

What hasn’t existed for a very long time are enough pieces written to be played and enjoyed by non-professional players (and audience) vs. pieces written to be professionally played and passively heard. My own great-uncle Kosta wrote pieces for his students in Greece. Robert Schumann did the same. J.S. Bach ditto. Contrast the charm of the Musette in D in Bach’s Notebook for Anna Magdalena or Schumann’s “The Wild Horseman” with the anthology of teaching pieces like the Amsco publication Pieces for Children that one of my students conveniently forgets to bring to her lesson (bought by her mom who in turn was influenced by another piano teacher’s opinion). Click on the link above which takes you to the table of contents in this anthology. Ask anyone, ANYONE, if they recognize anything contemporary on that list (written at least in their lifetime). This same student totally digs Randall and Nancy Faber’s newly composed contemporary teaching pieces, like  Sounds from the Gumdrop Factory from their Piano Adventure series, which this student’s mom also picked out. This student has a sense of timeliness and timelessness. She’s concurrently working on “The Wild Horseman.”

Not even I can comfortably predict which of today’s hooky contemporary compositions will endure the test of time and become classics. I’m sure at some point Stephen Heller or Johann Burgmuller, contemporary teaching composers of their time TWO HUNDRED YEARS AGO, exhibited hooks that grabbed their young clients. Actually, I’m not sure, but I’m hoping so. They don’t travel well across the generations and I’m sorry, but we need to let them R.I.P. My own students have never chosen to play anything by them no matter how much I whored up the performances in experiments trying to get them to fall for these guys. No wonder so many piano students drop out after a few years. They don’t care about the music they’re learning.

I believe that there is a reason we became a celebrity-fawning, passive audience versus a nation of music and art makers. I believe it has something to do with defaulting to pushing the musty old Stephen Hellers and Johann Burgmullers on our students who have the good sense to avoid practicing them, or handing down iron-clad interpretations, not allowing our students to begin cooking up their own rubato. Social culture marches on, and if we want to keep ourselves and our students connected and participating, we need Lisa Marsh and Jan Mittelstaedt and all the contemporary (and local) composers whose compositions were performed artlessly at the In Good Hands concert. We need teachers like Dianne Davies, who astutely realized that her teenaged student would emotionally connect with Marsh’s piece, and Myrna Elmore, who got Jan Mittelstaedt to compose Mooshi and Sparky for her young student’s doggy and kitty.

Play Ethic

Along with confirming how much young musicians want to play the music of their time and place, In Good Hands proved that they’re totally willing to devote the time and commitment to practice if they’re given music they care about. I conducted Tomas Svoboda’s Canon for Unlimited Voices (2011) at this concert. In two intense two-hour rehearsals plus the hour-long dress rehearsal, these 14 kids focused like bipolars on a manic jag. No letting up, no whining, always wanting one more take at passages we were practicing, mistake-free within three iterations. They understood the metal drive of the piece, the 21st century aggression, the foot-stomping dance, the in-your-face riffs.

At the performance, shredding Svoboda’s Canon like Jimi Hendrix shredded “Purple Haze,” they missed only one thing: a wholesale embracing of showbiz body involvement. I tried to get them to fling their arms defiantly off the keys with the last bombing accent but the preciousness of a classical music upbringing was too much to overcome in a five minute choreography lesson. It didn’t matter: The defiant “HELL YEAH!” look on all 14 faces as they stood to take their bows said it all. They were tight and wicked and even Tomas Svoboda, notorious for his perfectionism and sky high expectations and bad temper, was grinning like Jack Nicholson with a bad-ass ax and nowhere to grind it.

The entire concert had this feeling of owning pieces rather than playing diffident dress-up with Victorian garb. After finally seeing and participating in IGH, I totally understood that these kids aren’t so much bent on playing a genre (pop), but are wired to play the stuff created in their time and place. In fact, next time, Cascadia and OMTA should trust the students even more, and allow them (not just their teachers) to participate in selecting which available Cascadia Composers compositions they want to play.

I love that I live in Portland where we have one of the most vibrant living composer environments in the world. I love that Snopes does NOT declare the recently elusive In Good Hands another urban legend. I hope this yearly event ensures that not only do young musicians get to regularly meet real live composers and play their music, they also will expect this to be the norm everywhere they live. Maybe they will find it odd if classical music in other cities they might live is defined as a collection of musty pieces at least 200 years old coming from northern Europe. Maybe they will correct that misperception to the music denizens in their newly adopted cities. And, after the last tried to kill classical music by confining it to a museum, I hope that they and their friends and students will do the one thing that more than anything else will keep contemporary classical music thriving in this century: play it!

Portland pianist and piano teacher Maria Choban is OAW’s Oregon ArtsBitch.

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Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

8 Responses.

  1. Jack Gabel says:

    all the above, absolutely fantastic

    but, there is a gnawing curiosity – all these students performing in sold-out shows – always loaded up with friends and family (of course) – one of the best examples: fEARnoMUSIC’s Young Composers Project where annually 8-10 aspiring composers get their works professionally performed in concert – a dream come true for composers of my vintage, in our distant youth… sot’s this (my gnawing curiosity that is): why don’t I see these young aspiring artists showing up at concerts of music performed or composed by their mentors or other contemporary artists?

    I’m not a teacher, but I am a Cascadia Composer (regularly programmed) and I am sometimes performed by fEARnoMUSIC and by 3rd Angle (albeit some decade or so hence), nevertheless, to be sure this isn’t personal – it’s an absolutely general observation – but most recently, I don’t recall seeing any FNM Young Composers or CC In Good Hands students at this concert – amply stocked with ‘de rigueur du jour’ pop-&-or-ethnic-music references…

    as a student, I wouldn’t have missed it – I hold fond memories of catching Cage, Subotnik, Svoboda, Avshalomov, Healey, Appleton, Crumb, Imbrie, Krenek, Finney and numerous other local and regional composers – too many to list – would never miss an opportunity to learn from their work and/or their words – is this no longer a valued means of learning – am I missing something?

    • Maria Choban says:

      “why don’t I see these young aspiring artists showing up at concerts of music performed or composed by their mentors or other contemporary artists?”

      @Jack:
      I think we have to build that bridge, Jack. I think these youngsters don’t yet consider the contemporary composers mentors because they have only just been exposed. I think the teenager who played Lisa Marsh’s piece will probably want to play more of Marsh’s stuff and then will want to go hear Marsh’s stuff in concert . . . kind of like listening to a new pop artist, picking up a CD of their stuff and then going to hear them in concert. Just a guess, though.

      • Jack Gabel says:

        thanks for the thoughtful reply – in reading the issue related to pop music ‘appeal’, I recall (1992, I think) Chinary Ung discussing, in a Bloch Festival Composers Symposium, the craft of composing: “…it’s thrilling, rewarding, illuminating, but… (he paused, and in largo soto voce) it’s just so hard to do really well…” – anyone who takes this seriously knows how hard it is: 10% inspiration – 90% perspiration – a big part of artistic growth is studying the literature, regardless of its ‘appeal’

        • Jack Gabel says:

          BTW: studying challenging works is a time-honored learning method – any and all aspiring composers and/or cellists would benefit from studying this:

  2. Lisa Marsh says:

    Maria-

    Thank you, so much, for your enthusiastic and supportive review of the Cascadia “In Good Hands Concert”. We need more musicians like you willing to step out and talk about the importance of emotional connection over note perfection and “war horse” replication. Working with young pianists and their teachers who want to play my music is a joy and a priviledge. The fact that they understand my music and feel the sentiments is quite thrilling.

    Thank you for being a courageous voice for change both in your riveting performances and your eloquent writing!

  3. Kela Parker says:

    We so need perspectives like yours Maria! I love the comparison of Marsh to Chopin; once I saw Lisa Marsh perform one of her own pieces alongside several of the old classics, and despite the beautiful playing throughout, her piece was the one that really grabbed my heart. Yay living composers!!!!

  4. Paul Safar says:

    Thank you so much for illuminating thoughts that resonate with my own experiences as a piano teacher as well as a composer/performer.I find my students internal musical fire ignited especially by music that has a connection to the now. The In Good Hands project gives me faith that new art music is not only alive and well today but will continue on tomorrow. Thanks Maria!

  5. Deborah Cleaver says:

    I am so pleased to hear that the IN GOOD HANDS concert was such a success. I deeply regretted having to be away when it took place, and applaud your efforts to make it happen. As an avid performer and teacher of new music, and as the founder and chairman of the last two OMTA Contemporary Festivals, I am thrilled to see composers having their pieces performed. In the festival, some of those students play 20th century music which is no longer truly contemporary, but I feel that it is a good way in to the language of more avant-garde music. I personally always find new music for my students, and they all really love it.

    While I appreciate the passionate advocacy of the composition and performance of new music in the article by Maria Choban, I wish that she had been confident enough in her case to let it rest on the actual merits of exposing our students to the music of today, rather than denigrating the teaching of music of the past.

    In particular, she takes to task the teaching of rubato, one of the most important aspects of expression from Bach to Chopin to scat singers. As any piano teacher worth his/her salt knows, it takes years of careful work to nourish style, technique, taste, and good old heart and soul, all in the appropriate amounts.

    Many years ago, our school system threw out the teaching of grammar and phonetics, and what we got was a generation who can’t spell, don’t know a subject from a predicate, much less the difference between subjective and objective pronouns, and who have next to no vocabulary. I stand with those who think all words have subtle differences in meaning, and that the more words you know, the richer your capacity for expression. Music is no different. When I begin teaching articulation, I know that it will often sound like hiccups at first. But as experience widens, intuition deepens; finesse that is a result of knowledge and technique develop. I give my students principles and concepts, and guide them in the beginning. Then I give them choices, but always want them to have reasons for their choices. And if they make bad choices, I give them specific reasons for thinking so. While it is true that there are some pedagogues who are better, some not so good, at teaching rubato, it undermines Choban’s credibility to write a wholesale dismissal of the teaching of that most important art. Her description of the term, “rubato (that technique where you hold a note longer than rhythmically intended or on-purpose rush a passage, all in the name of playing expressively) handed down from teachers. Or they held notes that meant nothing in the sentence surrounding them except self-indulgence or dry harmonic leading tone stresses—that is, staying on a penultimate note longer than usual and thereby, in theory, sustaining tension,” exposes a lamentable lack of understanding of a very complex concept.

    Choban also disparages the works of Heller and Bergmueller as “[not travelling] well across the generations.” She suggests we let them RIP. My students love these pieces, and as a teacher, I find them wonderful for learning expressive detail, the relation of harmony to melodic line, piano figures, pedalling, etc. They are a wonderful intermediate bridge to more advanced romantic repertoire. I don’t agree that teaching these composers is “defaulting to pushing the musty old Stephen Heller and Johann Burgmullers.” Perhaps if the student she referred to as, “negotiating a tortured Chopin museum piece”, had been taught more successfully how to express this music in intermediate literature, the result might have been more satisfying. But even if the playing wasn’t up to concert level, maybe the student’s early attempts at performing this music were a step along the way to artistry, a learning experience. She writes that her “own students have never chosen to play anything by them no matter how much [she] whored up the performances in experiments trying to get them to fall for these guys.” Perhaps if she played the pieces beautifully and expressively without,…..well, you can reread her own representation of her playing….. her students would like the pieces more.

    It is always important to play the music of our own day, and in our, as in all other ages, there are some sublime works, some mediocre, some destined for the dustbin. Every composer deserves his shot at having his music performed, and time will tell what lasts. I’ve been fortunate to have been hired to play the new works of many of today’s composers, including premieres of works by Michael Johanson and Dennis Floyd, two of Portland’s wonderful composers. There is a place for every style of music, from rockabilly to classical; from new-age doodling to avante-garde jazz; from renaissance to contemporary. No new style developed in a vacuum, and a well-rounded musician will understand the evolution of musical thought and style, the strands that connect them, and the debt we owe to the past. There is no need to trash the teaching of older music and composers to promote those of today. Music is powerful and empowering, and it deserves more respect than it was shown in the opinions expressed in this article.

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