The Ten Little Idiots

Allow me to venture into a slightly un-politically correct analogy. Back, many years ago, when I was just a child there was a children’s song with a colorful and history: “Ten Little Indians” whose original title was: “Ten Little Injuns”. I have often used the phrase “10 little idiots” to describe my fingers. I complete the analogy with the idea that the 10 little idiots were controlled by the Chief Idiot. As I have worked my way through the rehabilitation of my left hand I am seeing the legitimacy of this idea. The initial surgery was followed by a very difficult staph infection which necessitated two additional operations. My left hand was in pretty bad shape when I began my occupational therapy. It wasn’t until about 5 weeks after the surgery before I began to tentatively play the piano again. I had about 40% range of motion in my fingers and probably about 30% in my thumb. In terms of strength my guess is my left hand was 20% of my right hand.

After a few days of 15 – 30 minutes of playing I had be able to move my hand enough to play Bach’s inventions and simple Haydn Sonatas. Once I felt comfortable enough with the physical act of playing (learning where the limits of range of motion were mostly and what motions were painful) I began to turn my attention to musical expression. To my great joy I found that even with this sad excuse of a hand I had no difficulty in doing whatever I wanted to do expressively. Granted speed was and is still limited (but getting better every day) my ability to express music did not reside in my little idiots, it was all up to the chief.

You don’t have to train the fingers; you have to train your mind.

The ability to imagine YOUR fingers, wrists, and arms doing something is the critical issue. Just because you heard someone else play something means nothing if you cannot imagine your own fingers doing the same thing.
I have found one of the best exercises to learn chord voicing is to split the chord between the hands. Play the important note in the right hand and everything else in the left. Work at it until you have the color you want and listen very carefully to the dynamic level of each note. Now repeat the chord with just one hand. Now that you have heard your hands playing the balance you wanted, even though it took two hands, you will arrive at needed physical solution to your musical dilemma. It wasn’t because you drilled your hands into submission, but rather you taught yourself the proper amounts of weight to put into each note and even though the lesson was taught with two hands, it provides enough information to make a one handed effort much more successful.

Andrew Remillard

Rule #10) DO IT RIGHT, NOW!

Your subconscious mind records your actions without judgment. It doesn’t know you missed the F# again, and AGAIN! Every mistake becomes part of your learning. That repeated mistake will to take on a life of its own, like a monster from a horror flick; it never dies and has a hundred lives to torment you with.

Slow, careful practice is the only route to success, to speed up before you have cleaned up will simply give you a fast mess.

There is no time like the present to be perfect!

Andrew Remillard

Escapement, Getting Out From Under

Recently we had the rare opportunity to have an 1860’s Erard in the shop for a brief period. These are exceedingly rare pianos and this one was in fantastic shape. It had been rebuilt and restored to original condition by a very conscientious rebuilder. I was very excited to open the piano and examine the action which dates from very near the invention of the double escapement action built by the inventor of that very action, Mr. Erard. His action design is what all modern grand actions are based upon.

The term “double escapement” refers to the mechanisms ability to “reset” the hammer jack relationship without having to return the key to the fully upright position. You can re-strike a key on a grand piano after returning the key to about the ½ way point. On almost all uprights, and the 1897 Broadwood grand we had in the shop not too long ago, you must allow the key to fully return before it will play again.

The double escapement allows for a much faster repetition and much more subtle soft playing. This is accomplished by a second lever, sometimes called the “balancier” which is attached to a spring. The spring applies a positive lift to the hammer knuckle and when the key is released and the hammer is freed from the back check it is able to lift the hammer, allowing the jack to slide back under the knuckle before the key has fully returned.

There are a few examples of “double escapement” like upright actions. Fandrich & Sons has developed an action with an extra spring connecting the hammer butt and jack which pulls the jack back under the butt, allowing for a quicker repetition. And as the preacher said: “There is nothing new under the sun.” We are just finishing the complete rebuilding of a 1912 Mason & Hamlin upright with a spring designed to push the jack back under the butt also. If you want an upright which plays and feels like a grand… here you are! The Mason & Hamlin will repeat with even less key return than a grand piano. You can get the key to re-strike with the key less than ½ way returned.

Andrew Remillard

15 Ways to Promote Your Piano Studio

  1. Make or update your business cards and distribute them every place you can.
  2. Develop a simple website and be sure that it is easily searched for on the web.
  3. Put your name in other online music teacher directories.
  4. Put up ads on grocery store bulletin boards.
  5. Take lots of gigs.
  6. Get to know a lot of teachers in your area. They may refer people to you if their studio is full.
  7. Get to know homeschooling groups. You can schedule lessons during the day time and have your evenings free.
  8. Be a part of various musical organizations like MTNA or the local music club.
  9. Be in touch with music teachers at your local schools.
  10. Get a sign for your lawn or your car advertising your music studio.
  11. Your word of mouth – spread the word at your church, job, or at your child’s soccer game that you are looking for more students.
  12. Make a brochure about your piano studio.
  13. Tell everyone on Facebook.
  14. Whenever you email your current students, tell them you have openings for their friends.
  15. Create a YouTube video about your studio.

Special thanks to Sarah Flanagan.

Andrew Remillard

#1 The Reality of Failure

An Open Letter to My Children

Now that you are well on your way into adulthood, I would like to take a moment to share some thoughts with you. I have enjoyed those many occasions when you have come on your own to seek my counsel, what parent wouldn’t! However, I think there are some things I would like to share with you which transcend those issues we have talked about from time to time.

The one constant I know you will face throughout your life, since you are MY children and I can see already how you have modeled your own life after the example your Mom and I have set, is that you will fail often and even spectacularly many times throughout your life. Many of your peers and even other family members will not experience the level of failure you will get to enjoy because most will never choose to live life in the deliberate and goal oriented manner you have chosen.

As I am sure you know, every year starting in mid-December through early January I spend a considerable amount of time reviewing the previous year and planning the next year. If you looked at the records I have kept for most of the past 25 years (which you never will get to see) you will notice right away how badly I have done year after year in meeting my goals. You could rightly say I have failed in just about every endeavor I have undertaken. However, the irony is that despite missing most of my goals, I have accomplished more than I could ever have dreamed.

The best part of failure is that you will very seldom fail utterly. Each goal you set, each project you start will, by the very act of pursuing it, will take you further down the road of life than if you had done nothing. Even failing spectacularly often result in the important lessons on what NOT to do in the future and what maybe what to do next time.

And there will always be a next time. You must always be planning your next endeavor. It is very easy to wallow in self pity when you have the wind knocked out of you. If you stay there long enough you may never get up again.

The vast majority of people tolerate failure long enough to find a place where they can coast through the rest of their life. What a mediocre way to live! It is better to seek out challenges which push you to grow, accept each set back, and then… “wait upon the LORD (who) shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.” (One of our favorite verses.)

Andrew Remillard

Rule #9 Listen in Depth

Back in my student days it was a cumbersome or nearly impossible to listen to different interpretations of a work one right after the other. The school library may have a few duplicate recordings but not many. Today you can hear dozens of different renditions on uTube of just about anything. Try this exercise: Listen to the first minute of a work played by four or five different musicians. Do it again and this time observe the different details of tempo, dynamics, articulation. Observe how the music changes as these details are changed. How does tempo change the character of the melody? How does the articulation change your focus of attention? Is there a counter melody somewhere in the accompaniment? How does this affect the texture? A great piece of music cannot be played fully all at once; it contains more material than can be brought out in a single performance. Learning to listen below the surface can open a whole new horizon of understanding.

Andrew Remillard

Dear ANR

“I have been told by me teacher that I should only use a tuner who uses a tuning machine and I have been told by another person that I should only use a tuner who tunes by ear. What is the truth?” Pat

This is a great question.

Here is one way to consider the answer. I play a great sounding 7’ Steinway and Sons grand piano that I rebuilt to my own specifications. It has a huge bass and clear treble. Now, with this tool, I can play beautiful music effortlessly and I will never make a mistake. Right? Of course not! The piano is simply a tool, a very good one, but still a tool, just like a hammer. It is up to the user to use the tool adequately and with skill to be successful.

Whether a piano tuner uses a Electronic Tuning Device (ETD) or they tune with only their own ears and mind, their success has less to do with the tool they use than the skill they bring to the tool. I have seen tuners who were using an ETD execute a beautiful stable tuning and others who I wished they hadn’t touched my pianos. I was left wondering if they actually listened to the mess they made of the tuning.

The same goes for aural tuners. Virgil Smith was one of the finest aural tuners I have ever met; people would fly him all over the country to tune their pianos. Other aural tuners would be better off with an EDT. It is more important to check the tuner’s skill and experience than to look for any particular tool in their tool box.

Andrew Remillard

Commandment #7 Thou Shalt Not Say “Can’t”

This is the most destructive word which can ever be uttered! It is forbidden in my studio for it is a lie. Unless you are missing a finger or a hand, you most certainly can, you just need some help and time. “Can’t” means I quit and accept failure; it is a statement of finality.

Another word which will get my ire is: “try”. In the words of the great philosopher Yoda, “Do or do not, there is no try.” “Try” implies “I expect to fail.” What a self-fulfilling prophesy! It is much better to say: “I will do this!” and then determine what must be done to succeed. If you decide that the cost of “doing” is too great then you can decide to “do not”. The use of these simple words changes our focus from anticipated success to expected failure.

While this does not guarantee success it certainly increases the chances of success and it makes us much more uplifting and encouraging people to be around.

Andrew Remillard

Rule # 8 Distributed Work

We have all been guilty of trying to cram for a test, or writing a paper the night before it is due. What is the usual outcome? Not good! The human mind needs time to fully absorb new information, neurological pathways take time to form and become stable. Part of becoming a professional musician is the ability to absorb and perform music in as short of a time as possible. However this ability is really a reflection of solid earlier study which created a broad familiarity with a particular type of music. Taking time to carefully learn something new, giving yourself time to revisit the material many times over many days or months is the surest way to fully absorb and integrate this new material.

Andrew Remillard

Journey Interrupted Update #3

As I waited for my left hand to heal from surgery, I took the opportunity to explore the very limited literature for the right hand alone. There has been very little ever written for just the right hand at the piano. However I did find one interesting nugget. Charles Alkan wrote a series of Etudes in his Op. 76. The first one is for the left hand, the second is for the right hand, and the final is for the hands reunited. These are substantial works with the Right Hand Etude running about 24 pages. It is written in a theme and variation format. It has the expected Alkan challenges but sits very well in the hand.

For therapeutic purposes I have returned to playing the 15 Two Part Inventions of Bach. One of the most interesting editions of these and the Three Part Sinfonias is the Alfred Edition with Willard Palmer as the editor. As part of the preface of each set, Mr. Palmer produces a chart of about 15 different performances, editions, and commentaries’ tempos. For most of the works there is about a 100% difference between the fastest and slowest tempos. As an initial part of my rehabilitation I am exploring how to create effective interpretations at the slower tempos. As my hand improves I will move to the other side of the scale and explore the changes which occur in the character of these pieces as their tempos increase.

One aspect of much of Bach’s music which has always fascinated me has been the flexibility of his music to make sense at a wide variety of tempos. There is content within every note such that even pieces which are traditionally played very fast such as the 4th invention in d minor can be played quite expressively at a slow tempo as well.

Andrew Remillard