AI thoughts in Galway

I’m in Galway, at a coffee shop that also sells nice minimalist, School of Life type stuff that appeals to me. Last time I was here, years ago, before the thing, there was a record player upstairs and I had an interesting conversation with a masters student about the book I was reading at the time, Ian McEwan’s ‘Machines Like Me’.

The ideas played with in McEwan’s wonderful book are now very much in the ether. I just saw on Twitter that a Snapchat influencer has made an AI of herself using 2000 hours of her content. Users can chat with her avatar for $1/min.

What might a piano teacher AI look like? Imagine it having access to all of the pedagogical writings, all the blogs, all the articles in journals and magazines, all the YouTube videos, all the TikToks…

I could ask it to recommend ways to practise a particular piece and it could put together a 10 minute overview drawing from all the available sources.

I don’t know if a child would have the patience to deal with it in isolation. I do think I’d consider subscribing to something that could help me navigate a learning pathway with individual students. “They’ve played these pieces, they liked this one best, they found this aspect difficult…give me five options for the next piece they should learn.”

It’s going to be really interesting to see what will happen in the arena of education over the next two years.

Asked Seth’s AI about work…

I’ve been following Seth Godin’s writing for the better part of two decades. He is consistently insightful and interesting, especially around the question of what constitutes good work.

He just released an AI interface on his blog that responds to a reader’s questions with reference to his thousands and thousands of posts and podcasts and other writings.

I framed a question that seemed relevant to a lot of people’s experience of the world of work these days:

I’m a piano teacher in a school. People in my position were at one time paid on an incremental salary like classroom teachers. After the financial crash these incremental contracts were stopped. I’ve become demotivated by the realisation that, without incremental pay rises each year, my work is being devalued. What can I do? How should I think about this?

Here’s the response that the AI generated:

Seth Godin
Seth Godin

It’s understandable to feel demotivated when your work isn’t financially rewarded the way it used to be. However, it’s essential to separate your value and motivation from your salary. Take a moment to remember why you do what you do – the love for teaching and the impact you make on your students’ lives. Monetary rewards and bonuses can sometimes demotivate people, leading to feelings of unfairness and a lack of appreciation.

Redefine success and motivation in non-monetary terms. Focus on the respect, freedom, and responsibility that you have in your role as a piano teacher. Embrace continuous incremental improvement, and stay committed to becoming better at your craft. Invest your energy in providing exceptional experiences for your students and build a positive reputation. Let this be your driving force.

Remember that your true value lies in nurturing the talent and passion of your students. Shift your focus from salary increments to the impact you create, and let that be the motivation that fuels your passion for teaching. Your worth isn’t solely based on monetary rewards but rather the difference you make in the lives of those you teach.

Saturday 7 January 2023

I’ve started listening to Jeremy Denk’s memoir, ‘Every Good Boy Does Fine’. He writes beautifully about music and it’s fascinating to hear his reminiscences about his musical education and his life’s journey.

We’re also back to school! Students were a bit thin on the ground as, it being just a two day week at the end of the Christmas holidays, many of them were still away with families in exotic locations. It was good to see the half dozen or so that I did. Elongated breaks meant I could chat with fellow teachers without the usual feeling of rushing off to collect a child from their classroom to bring them down to the music block for their lesson. (Something I’m going to try this year is asking each student to go and tell the next one to come down to me. They’ll hopefully enjoy the responsibility and it’ll give me a valuable few minutes to make notes and get ready for the next lesson.)

I’m excited by the prospect of teaching more pieces by Robert Schumann this term. The ‘Little Study’ from his Album for the Young is on the Royal Irish Academy of Music Grade 3 syllabus this year. I’ve been applying the Whole Beat Metronome Practice to Schumann’s music with very satisfying results (namely, it renders the pieces actually playable). I’m also working on his second Op. 28 Romance with a Grade 8 student and both pieces require a sustained melody be foregrounded against an undulating texture. I’ve been studying Penelope Roskell’s authoritative book ‘The Complete Pianist’ and gleaning some helpful insights that I will be able to use with my students.

Desert Island thoughts

I occasionally listen to episodes of Desert Island Discs from the extensive archive (available as a podcast). It’s fascinating to hear the people who were at the forefront of culture when I was growing up. At the stage of life I’m at it’s bewildering to try and engage with actual contemporary culture, so the relatively calmer pace of things portrayed through the amiable chats on Desert Island Discs is appealing.

This morning I listened to interviews with Tom Lehrer and Ronnie Scott. Both of them, when pressed to select just one of their eight chosen discs, chose classical music. Lehrer took a duet from Richard Strauss’s ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ and Scott took the opening of Maurice Ravel’s ‘Daphnis et Chloe’. Isn’t that interesting?

Another thing that Ronnie Scott said was in explaining that he hadn’t included any of the big names of saxophone — Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins — as he could hear a lot of their influence in the sax players of the time. As an example he includes a recording by Charles McPherson. He does select John Coltrane’s beautiful rendition of ‘In A Sentimental Mood’, accompanied by Duke Ellington on piano. (It’s a great arrangement…I must transcribe the piano part.)

Tonight I’m off into town to listen to my friend Jennifer McMahon singing with a trio, which should be really good!

Getting back into the habit

A while ago I heard Liz Moody taking on a podcast and one of the things she mentioned was cold showers. If I’ve tried this in the past it’s always been rather unpleasant and I’ve struggled to “get it” and have therefore given up as soon as I’ve begun. Liz’s slight twist on it is that she has her shower as normal and then, at the end, she turns the water as cold as possible and finishes with a cold blast.

It’s meant to be good for your hair and she also mentioned that concentrating the water on the back of your neck promotes the production of brown fat, which is apparently a good thing. It being the Easter holidays, I decided to just give it a go as my regular, school-centred routine was suspended. She said just do a few seconds at first and gradually build it up. Also, crucially, she said to do it for 28 days before deciding if it had worked or not.

Well, I’m still at it! Four months later. It’s just part of my shower routine now. I’m disappointed when I’m staying somewhere and the shower doesn’t go particularly cold.

I’m going to try the same with my blog. My long neglected blog. I’m just going to write a bit every day. Let’s see if this habit will stick, too…

if i’m wrong i’m right where i belong

I’ve been teaching about diminished chords in the last couple of weeks – they appear in a Grade 1 RIAM piece called ‘Lame Duck’ and also in the third section of Beethoven’s ‘Für Elise’. Here’s a quote from Barry Harris:

People react to a lot of things. What I’ve found they really react to is diminished notes. See, ’cause, if you play diminished notes with something, it’ll sound like it’s wrong. And people…the ears of people react to wrong. The audience reacts to wrong. And what you have to do, you have to throw that little ‘wrong’ in, then you make it right, that messes them up. But you got their attention; it’s real weird, too, it’s really true. They’re real funny about that. People can react to a wrong note, “now I say, do you hear that, he’s playing a wrong chord in that song”. But you make it right then they don’t know what to think. So you have to fool people and people will gasp.

from a Frans Elsen film of a Barry Harris workshop at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague

Title from the beautiful Beatles song, ‘Fixing A Hole’. Paul’s adlib vocal line over the last chorus hits all kinds of jazzy notes, there’s a harpsichord, George’s guitar parts are tasty tasty, and it has the breezy mood that’s so wonderfully prevalent in a lot of Paul’s songwriting.

Play smarter, not harder

Yesterday I was digitally leafing through Tobias Matthay’s book, ‘The Visible and Invisible in Pianoforte Technique’. I picked up on a key motivation behind his teaching: people were playing too hard. It’s easy to imagine a generation of amateur musicians attempting to recreate the “loudness” of, say, Rachmaninov by simply playing harder. Matthay would rather that pianists learned to play much much softer.

I’ve been practising a lot in these first months of 2021 – mostly the first 5 Goldberg variations – on my Yamaha Clavinova. I tend to have the volume kind of low so as not to disturb the neighbours (and Jen, trying to work from the next room). It struck me after reading Matthay that I’m definitely playing hard. With lots of wasted effort. What if I turned up the volume and tried to play softer? (There’s also a sensitivity setting on the Clavinova – low, medium, and hard – which allows the illusion of more resistance from the keyboard itself.)

It occurs to me that the vast majority of my students don’t have real pianos at home. Most of the beginners don’t even have weighted keys. I’m interested to see what it will mean for my own playing and for my teaching to focus on the development of wider-ranging dynamic levels. We’re back into school and real-life lessons on Thursday, so my students (and I, too!) will be back in front of a real piano again. First lesson…let’s take the front off and see how this thing works…

Tobias Matthay was an educational writer, composer, and professor of pianoforte at the Royal Academy of Music from 1884-1925.

Chick Corea & Béla Fleck at The National Concert Hall, 10 July 2017

“What’ll we start with?”

“Let’s start with one of the tunes…”

The two musicians take it in turn to state the minor key riff of Señorita, before entwining together and leading us on the first of the evening’s journeys. Chick Corea and Béla Fleck are two of the foremost jazz players of our time and the pairing of Corea’s piano and Fleck’s banjo is a display of masterful musicianship. The sensitivity and technical ability they each possess is remarkable and keeps us enthralled for the duration of their performance.

After Señorita, a Corea composition, we hear Fleck’s Waltse for Abby and then Corea’s Children’s Song #6. Corea playfully throws in a nod to his best-known composition, Spain, as he begins the piece. There’s so much give and take throughout the evening as the duo trade solo lines, locking together occasionally in unison and worked-out passages that are thrilling against the backdrop of improvisation. A beautiful, shimmering chord closes the Children’s Song.

Fleck announces that next they’re going to play “…a top secret piece”. Corea coughs exaggeratedly and flicks out the back hem of his shirt, mimicking the gestures of a concert pianist. Two sonatas by Baroque composer Domenico Scarlatti follow. The pieces (originally written for harpsichord in the early 1700s) are constructed mainly in two-part writing, the left and right hands sharing the musical material evenly, joining together frequently in pleasing sequences and patterns. As such, they are the perfect vehicle of expression for this duo, and the sound of the two instruments combined is reminiscent of the harpsichord’s plucked, sparkling tone. They play with great finesse, adding in stylish trills and slowing together gracefully at the end of sections. Corea even throws in a jazzy little improvised part at one stage. It would be wonderful if Fleck’s comment about the pieces being “top secret” was a hint at a project involving this sort of material…

Introducing the next piece, Corea says he’s liking learning to play bluegrass piano. He steps to the side of the stage (looking very cool, it must be said, in his loose skinny scarf and purple and pink Nikes) and gives Fleck the spotlight. As he improvises a series of angular arpeggios, we are reminded that we’re far from traditional bluegrass here, but he homes in on familiar sounds and the opening riffing of Mountain begins with a rocking motif, spelling out a minor seventh chord. The pair take turns trading licks, going further and further ‘out’, before locking together in unison at the end and returning to the rocking motif. One final, shimmering chord signals the end – well, more than one, but the others are lost beneath the audience’s delighted applause.

After the interval we hear Continuance, which Corea had put aside for years until Fleck heard it. “You were just waiting for a banjo to come into your life!” The resulting composition has sounds, to my ear, of French composer Francis Poulenc, and so it’s interesting to hear them play a piece by another French composer, Henri Dutilleux’s Prélude en berceuse. This melancholic, serious music is followed by Fleck’s recounting of the story behind his charming piece, Juno, written as he was delayed in an airport while rushing home to meet his new baby son. Someone calls out “Happy birthday, Béla!”, and Corea strikes up two choruses of a latin-tinged singalong. It perhaps illustrates the difference in the two men’s personalities that Corea is loving this moment – offering a fraternal fistbump across the piano afterwards – and Fleck is less enthused. Juno’s main motif is a little descending two-note phrase preceded by a glissando that perfectly renders his son’s name into music. Corea’s soloing during this piece is extraordinary – streams of semiquavers at one point and some playful, intricate two-hand figurations.

A standing ovation and a selfie, they go off for a few moments, and then back on for an encore, Armando’s Rhumba. Corea starts this by reaching inside the piano and dampening a few bass strings, coaxing some moody harmonics from the instrument. Fleck picks out a wry, minor-mode version of Happy Birthday briefly before we’re launched into the familiar tune (now forty years old!). Corea smiles as he improvises around the chord changes. Fleck throws in the air of The Irish Washerwoman, and we revel in one last display of musical symbiosis from this brilliant duo before they amble off stage.

setlist

Señorita
Waltse For Abby
Children’s Song #6
Sonatas in D minor K1/L366 & K9/L413 – Domenico Scarlatti
Mountain

Continuance
Jerusalem Ridge
Enchantment
Prélude en berceuse – Henri Dutilleux
(Happy Birthday)
Juno

Armando’s Rhumba

Zingalamaduni

One of my very favourite bands when I was forging my musical tastes as a teenager was Arrested Development. They were a multi-generational hip hop group whose first album was packed with memorable, funky songs. Their second album was called Zingalamaduni, which means (so one of the interstitial tracks on the album helpfully informed the listener) “beehive of culture”. I just got John Mortensen’s new book, ‘The Pianist’s Guide to Historic Improvisation’. The first print run is sold out already, so I’ve impatiently downloaded the Kindle version. In the introduction he recommends students keep a zibaldone — an Italian word that means “heap of things” and, in this case, refers to “a personal notebook, sometimes known as a commonplace book”. I’d be interested to know if those two words have a shared etymology. They certainly seem to, and this kind of stuff fascinates me! Favourite track from ‘Zingalamaduni’? Probably ‘Shell’.

Just a shell until you decide to rebel

performance, teaching, composition & reviews