March 26, 2011

MTNA Convention - Pedagogy Saturday Review

Do the words "Piano Teacher's Convention" get you excited? I find the thought particularly enthralling and this year I was lucky enough to attend a day of the Music Teachers National Association National Convention in Milwaukee. Unfortunately due to time constraints I was only able to attend the first day of the conference, dubbed Pedagogy Saturday. I attended a day full of seminars, master classes and performances, with varying levels of quality...but that's a teacher's conference is it not?

I'm not a big fan of watching videos when I'm at a conference, so I was a little disappointed to walk into the first session to be greeted by a DVD showing. Luckily it served a legitimate purpose. This year's theme is collaborative music making, a commendable if somewhat unpopular choice of programming (more on that juicy tidbit later) and this DVD was highlights of coaching sessions given by faculty at UT-Austin including pianist and presenter Anne Epperson to a violin and piano duo. The video tracked the student's progress from first rehearsals to performance. The video was well done, well shot, and contained excellent teaching moments, but in the context of what should have been a live presentation the video was less effective than an in-person coaching. The best part of her video was the thoroughness of the execution. The ensemble was captured on video in coaching sessions with Epperson, the flute professor, a separate ensmeble coach, their dress rehearsal, and finally in the performance. Eastman's Jean Barr's coaching of a Szymanowski piece was captured in a separate DVD that was not nearly as well executed. The video had only two parts: rehearsal with Barr, and performance. The inability to track the progress of the duo and lack of extra ideas given by non-piano faculty meant that the outside viewer could not interpret the difference between progress through coaching and progress through extra practice time.

Part of the fun of a convention is gambling on which seminars you'll attend. I had no choice on the first and I guess on the second one poorly. The topic "How to Talk to a Tenor" seemed promising, co-hosted by professors Ann Harrell and Janice Wenger of University of Missouri-Columbia about how to improve communication between singers and pianists. The presentation turned into a series of weak music jokes, extremely basic ensemble information and even some misleading piano reduction advice. I'll leave it at that.

The choice of a vocal masterclass given by singer Karen Brunssen of Northwestern University and vocal coach and pianist J.J. Penna from Westminster Choir College in Princeton. I had reservations about attending a vocal masterclass but it turned out to be one of the best events of the day. Apart from picking up extremely good vocal advice from Karen Brunssen, J.J. Penna turned out to be an extremely refreshing pedagogical voice. In a musical world where pedagogues have a tendency to use technical solutions for every problem, Penna used musical decisions to solve every musical problem. I learned a great deal from his coaching, both of the vocalists and of the pianists. His demeanor was kindly but firm and all of the duos he worked with improved greatly over the short amount of time he spent with them. Karen Brunssen was hilarious and despite an over-reliance on rib expansion (which don't get me wrong, fixes a whole heck of a lot of problems) gave helpful advice in a way that amused students and put them at ease in front of the packed room.

J.J. Penna, new mancrush.
The first session of the afternoon was the highlight of my day. Elizabeth Buccheri, of Northwestern University and part-time conductor's pianist for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Lyric Opera and a variety of other organizations gave a thrilling session on dealing with orchestral reductions at the piano. Covering topics such as issues with the process of reduction creation, the ethics (or lack of ethics) in playing a reduction, and general tips on simplifying a reduction to score study for creating a better accompaniment, Buccheri's lecture was amusing and packed full of useful, musical information. Her skills with score study and orchestral playing (here I mean playing as the orchestra) were remarkable and frankly intimidating. Her many years of playing operas, symphonies and orchestral accompaniments for conductors has led to a knowledge of orchestral repertoire and orchestration as deep as any composer or conductor. The level of work she puts into her reduction editing is admirable, and in the face of a music world that often goes through the motions, her commitment to a more musical creation inspires me to bring a new level to my own ensemble playing.

Finally, a recital of commissioned works by famed educational composers Robert Vandall, Eugenie Rochenorolle, and Nancy Faber capped of a good day. Nancy Faber's fabulous composition Curiouser and Curiouser for piano, B-flat Clarinet and Alto Sax was the highlight of the event, with a composition that successfully played with timbres, rhythmically complex motives and a playful Prokofiev-like melody that wound together an altogether un-educational sounding piece. Rocherolle's piece, Crescent City Connection, a playful New Orleans jazz romp for piano, bassoon, and oboe was enjoyable with a slow smoldering B-section offset by an upbeat Rag in the bookending sections. Robert Vandall,  a composer who I am extremely fond of seemed outside of his comfort zone with his piece Allegro Fanfare written for piano, trumpet and trombone. The piece, although intended as an educational piece, seemed to lack the depth and intention that Vandall's pieces usually contain.

It's a shame that I won't be able to attend the other days of the convention, especially because it would be nice to see my adviser, Reid Alexander, in action but I'm sure there will be future conventions that I'll attend, and hopefully present at.

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