Listen to the Schubert, please

5:34 Schubert D. 960, Mitsuko Uchida: return of theme 1 – distant, no top, pedaled, like bells in the distance [Do press the link for the full experience]

Every time I heard it, I would stop. I would feel the ringing, warm and round, as it traveled through the open air, through the square buildings, through the grid-locked roads, to reach me. The resonance would hold me; in those moments I would be nothing more than a creature locked in a spell – and yet, not locked, nor frozen, for the magic that came upon me was one of grace and vastness. I would climb atop my table to reach my screen-less, double-doored window, hoping to be a little closer, to catch the sound in my hands. It seemed to speak of a thousand years of human stories, or perhaps, it seemed to know of those innumerable stories, to have witnessed them from its great height. I would stay that way, perched on the window sill, hands pressing against the frame, willing myself to stay – to stay with the sound and stay with the magic.

When the tolling stopped, the familiar sounds of cars and wind and humans would return. And yet, the echoes lingered, in my ears and in the air. Maybe it will linger long enough, travel far enough, all the way back to Canada, or wherever I go.


A little technical, but honest.

In the first session, I studied with Mr. Daejin Kim. His expertise as a teacher became evident very quickly, particularly in his knowledge of what the students’ most needed area of improvement was. He was patient and usually softer-spoken, and had an air of wisdom and far-sightedness that came across in the way he approached each student very differently. For me, he devoted my second lesson to various “rhythm” exercises, a method he champions to the point that his colleagues nicknamed him “Mr. Rhythm Man.” He promised me an “every day for three-month and you’ll see big results” deal, which I am still maintaining, and on many days, have already seen big results. Through his teaching and his focus on improving my passage-work ability, as well as watching the playing of other students, I have come to the realization of the importance of “technical intelligence.” Mr. Kim played a big part in the improvement of my approach to improving technique; I now focus on physical sensation in the passing between one finger to the next and view freedom and looseness as the foundation for mobility and angling, rather than the goal. At the end of the session, I was lucky enough to play in his Class Recital, and it was a wonderful, inspiring moment.
In the second week of the first session, I also took lessons with Mr. Florian Birsak, the early keyboard instrument teacher. I had never played the fortepiano, but thought it was a great chance to try it out. The lessons ended up being a bit more of a struggle than I anticipated mostly because I was unable to do much of what I wanted until later on in the lessons. Mechanical differences aside, Mr. Birsak also played and taught the music very differently from what I had in my head. On the fortepiano, balance is much more evenly spread across all the voices, partly because the instrument does not sing and carry a line like a modern piano, but also because the historically informed early keyboard style draws heavier influence from chamber music. There were also mysterious and magical textures and timbres that he introduced to me. I also tried out a clavichord, an instrument I fell in love with and would suggest to all keyboard players to learn. The sensitivity and variety of sound of the instrument is an endless horizon of possibility that I hope to continue to explore.
For the second session, I took another five lessons with Ms. Ya-Fei Chuang. I covered a lot of repertoire with her, including the whole Ravel Concerto, and the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 28 and Mozart’s Sonata K. 331 and Bach’s Prelude in f sharp minor from WTC II. She was an extraordinary musician – powerful and committed, and one of the greatest things I learned from her was new shapes in phrasing, which leads to longer lines with more edges and contours and textures. She drew out sounds from me that I hadn’t thought existed in my sphere of musical production nor existed yet in my ear. I performed again in the Class Recital, playing the same piece, and was happy to know that it was a more finely wrought piece with many more details and colours.
My private lessons with Ms. Sybille Havemann, the Alexander Technique teacher, were some of my most favourite experiences while in Austria. We had many honest, open conversations about music and musicians, the technique, and my challenges. She was a warm, kind person with great integrity to her craft and extreme sensitivity. Probably the most unique exercise consisted of me lying on my back on a table while she moved my limbs around in continuous motion, teaching my body fluidity and lengthening certain joints and tight areas. I came to intuitively feel and intellectually understand the simultaneous dance of independence and intention from certain body parts but also the inseparable flow of movement and energy that follows. She also affirmed my suspicion of the interconnectedness of emotions, minute angles, posture and relaxation, and told me that there is “absolutely no separation” between all the factors.
Another highlight of the trip were the four Salzburg Festspiele recitals I attended. I heard solo performances of Sokolov, Schiff, Uchida, and a Lieder concert with Trifinov and Goerne. It was wonderful to experience the Festspiele and the European concert crowd; there were always at least four or five curtain calls! I am so grateful to have gotten to hear Sokolov and Uchida, both of whom rarely come to Vancouver. Sokolov drew such magical tones and textures of his specially picked piano and had an approach that is so musically pure, it almost sounded like a different language. Uchida, on the other hand, delivered such beauty over and over again, in a very personal yet understandable way, particularly in the Mozart Sonata C major K. 454.
After the month at Mozarteum, I stayed in Vienna for a week. There, I visited many museums, such as Mozart and Beethoven haus, Haus der Musik, Albertina, Kunsthistoriche Museum, Schoenbrunn, and goggled at the many palaces and statues that ordained the streets and squares. I happily allowed myself to be led by curators and creators in the absorption of godly composers, artists, and monarchs that became flawed humans and of art that moved and reminded and excited. It is such a beautiful city! I also visited Eisenstadt for the Haydn haus and Esterhazy Palace, as well as the idyll country town of Baden, courtesy of some lovely friends I met at the Mozarteum.
In five weeks, I have grown in independence and self-awareness in a place that I surprisingly fell seamlessly into, among the music, lights, and generous people that made me feel so welcome. As a solo traveler and student, there were many moments of solitude in which I grappled with self-doubt and indecisiveness but eventually, came to acceptance of where I am as a person and pianist. I am so lucky to have music, so lucky to be on this journey of self-expression and discovery and so lucky to have this channel to pour emotion and love into. Going to Austria has instilled confidence that opens to ease at the piano and incredible space for creativity and curiosity from a trove of musical intention inside of me that I sometimes forget. My most sincere and grateful thanks to the Johann Strauss Foundation for giving me the chance to love and learn from the beautiful country of Austria!

Cheers to sweet Salzburg (Pt. I)

Cheers to the wild, wild thunderstorms. Thunderstorms which emit affecting noises and fierce winds and loud, loud rains.

Cheers to the hot, hot sun. Sun that beats down with a heavy hand and presses deep into the body, as if juicing you like a fresh orange.

Cheers to shade, to night, to lights, and occasional pitter-patter.

Sometimes I almost forget

Sometimes I almost forget.

Sometimes I almost forget the proportions of a small but still long-ish body with four twiggy legs sticking out from it and in my imagination, her shape feels foreign and distant and I wonder how a life could fit in all of it.

But a life certainly did.

A sweet, sweet life, too.

Thank you, Mr. J

From your opening paragraph, an old sense of wonder began to arise in me, reminiscent of the many afternoons listening to you navigate through history and quotation and experience to persuade, or simply make aware, a roomful of teens the importance of certain permeating themes and perspectives that weave around and around our own tiny lives and into the larger context we inhabit through time and space.

So many afternoons. So many fluid segues between the various subjects, tasks, and stories that we built as a community, some curricularly intentional, others accidentally through experience (it’s a TALONS thing). In TALONS, we got to work and see it become something real to enjoy and share, like planning for Adventure Trip and leadership events and Eminent Person Night – such an essential part of motivation, that for those who never get to experience it, they lose a chance to foster a real love for learning.

That’s one of the things I’ll always tie to your incredible teachership, Mr. J. It was the way you spoke to us, us with our funny teenager-ly ways, only just beginning to find our voice in writing and perspective and introspection, and you, with your genuine patience and understanding. You laughed at our jokes and jumped off of our ideas and encouraged us on our blogs and through it all, I realized the things I thought were not only valid, but mattered. My love for writing and striving to articulate what’s inside me as well as this still-going-strong optimism for meaning is so much thanks to you.

In these years since TALONS, I have been continuing to solidify what I hope my learning to be. In the same way we searched for primary sources in Socials, more and more, I see my teachers not as containers of information and invigilators of our required swallowing of it, but as vessels of tales for lessons and real wisdom learned through their own lives. I want to learn knowledge that is important to a life and learn how that knowledge is learned.
So cheers to you, Mr. Jackson, and this beautiful, reflective, resonating part of a life you have generously shared with the TALONS community. We are all so lucky to have had you as a mentor.


I finally found it!

I remember the morning that I first asked about the meaning of the word, ‘love’. This was before I knew many words. I had found a few early violets in the garden and brought them to my teacher. She tried to kiss me; but at that time I did not like to have anyone kiss me except my mother. Miss Sullivan put her arm gently around me and spelled in my hand, ‘I love Helen.’
“What is love?” I asked.
She drew me closer to her and said, “It is here,” pointing to my heart. Her words puzzled me very much because I did not then understand anything unless I touched it.
I smelled the violets in her hand and asked, half in word, half in signs, a question which meant, “Is love the sweetness of flowers?” “No,” said my teacher.
Again, I thought. The warm sun was shining on us. “Is this not love?” I asked, pointing in the direction from which the heat came.
A day or two afterwards, the sun had been under a cloud all day, and there had been brief showers, but suddenly the sun broke forth in all its southern splendor. Again I asked my teacher, “Is this not love?”
“Love is something like the clouds that were the sky before the sun came out,” she replied. Then in simpler words than these, which at that time I could not have understood, she explained: “You cannot touch the clouds, you know; but you feel the rain and know how glad the flowers and the thirsty earth are to have it after a hot day. You cannot touch love either; but you feel the sweetness that pours into everything. Without love you would not be happy or want to play.”
The beautiful truth burst upon my mind — I felt that these were invisible lines stretched between my spirit and the spirit of others.
–Helen Keller, “The Story of My Life”

Then, in my noticing of the stars, in my mesmery of each and every flickering light, have I not, then, through my eyes and from my heart, stretched a line from me, all the way to them? Is that not love, then, of an innumerable amount? For who can ever count all the stars? And perhaps, to love a star is to love them all.

When you learn (again), that you actually like homework (when it’s a free write)

On October 15th, our “small-town” Victoria, city of sunshine and friendliness, was also the lucky host of Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra. Hailed as the best jazz orchestra in the world, it was quite a surprise that they ended up in this little city at all. As the opposite of a jazz expert myself, I hopped on the bandwagon, thinking if they were the best in the world, it had to be a good show. They were a good old-fashioned big band, dressed in sharp suits and ties for all except one, Ms. Helen Sung, substitute pianist and beautiful in a black dress. Their audience was a near-360 degrees-sold-out Farquhar Auditorium, complete with students ranging from middle school to university aged perched in the balcony. Sitting in the choir loft gave a unique perspective. I think we lost a bit of the saxophones, and thus, the overall balance, but I was able to see everything the drummer, Mr. Ali Jackson, was doing. And boy, he was incredible.

A highlight of the concert, for me, was the extremely charismatic and intricately creative rhythm section. Ali Jackson, the drummer, made enough music for a human with at least eight limbs. I knew that drum kit playing had to musical, despite lacking, at least overtly, the two other main aspects of music: melody and harmony. But the way he locked in with the others, adding a hit on the cymbal with a trumpet exclamation or a thump on the tom-toms as a beat 4 interjection, his playing melded with the melodic instruments in a way that made his percussion into melodic instruments as well. Ms. Helen Sung was a powerful, creative improviser and endlessly energetic as a member of the rhythm section. It sounded like she had a very solid Classical training, particularly in her improvisations. They were harmonically clearer, had a tone that was little more declamatory that the usual jazz pianists I listen to, and were filled with Romantic and modern accompaniment figures. I liked it – richer and more attention-holding. Her rhythmic (section) playing was sensitive and tight, I couldn’t see her often, but when I did, she was head-bobbing away and full of smiles. The final member of the rhythm section was double-bassist Carlos Henriquez, who had a great powerful sound. Often, in digital recordings, I find that the bass is a little lost. In this live show of such high calibre, I could hear him anytime I wanted to. I loved it when he showed off, his improvisations maximized his large range and rhythmic vitality.

Because of the nature of the pieces, with all the improvisatory sections and the very fair distribution of to all of them, they didn’t actually play a large number of pieces. I had two favourite pieces. The first was called “Armageddon” and was played in the middle of the first half. It was a darker, slower tune, and featured a short minor melodic motive that permeated throughout the piece. The soloist, Marcus Printup, often played the motive just as it was, without adding excessive embellishments. I thought this was particularly effective, especially because he played his trumpet with great depth of tone and subtle articulation. The other piece was by Duke Ellington (unfortunately I missed the title), and featured the extraordinary clarinetist Victor Goines. His opening section was so special – the notes felt like huge waves sweeping in and out, complete with echoes that could have been reverberations in the hall or just the effect of unforgettable music resonating in my head. I think he may have used the pentatonic scale, as well as other musical figures and gestures unique from the usual jazz clichés, to create such unusual and magical phrases. As he walked around the back of the orchestra to return to his seat, he gave a gruff but acknowledging nod to those of us seated in the choir loft, and I wondered if he had any idea just how much the music he played resonated in and affected me.

From the incredible rhythm section, to my two favourite tunes that I wished they played over and over, it was a concert with moments to remember. Thinking about the improvisatory passages that I can still remember, they all have something in common. The music was creative and unusual, different from the often-heard, play-as-many-notes-as-possible type of improvisation that I not only cannot understand, but do not particularly like. Upon returning home, I tried to look up some pieces they played, like Armageddon. It was good, but not quite the same. I suppose it means the Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra really is as good as they say.