Play it Again, an Amateur Against the Impossible by Alan Rusbridger

Browsing through the new book collection at my local library I came across this book, at first I thought: “not another ‘how I came back to lessons as an adult’ book!” However, the “against the impossible” part of the title intrigued me a bit so I thought I would at least give a start. After the first bite my appetite became insatiable.

For those, like me, who have no idea who Alan Rusbridger is, let me give a quick biography of him. He, like most of us had piano lessons throughout his childhood, often he was less than a great student, sliding by on his wits more than his effort. He even took of the clarinet in his early teens. He advanced well but always short of his potential. He ultimately goes into journalism where he does excel and is quite successful reaching the editor’s desk of a major English newspaper by his 40’s. He has continued to play throughout his college years and adult years, though as his responsibilities increase he has less time for his past time. For a couple of years leading up to the events of this book he has attended a sort of summer camp for amateur pianists for a week. During the camp about two years ago one of the students plays the 1st Chopin Ballade and Alan gets bitten. He wonders “Could I possibly do that too?” He rashly commits himself to playing for the group the following summer and sets out to begin learning this work on about 20 minutes of practice a day!!?? (And this from someone who readily admits he never “practices”, he just plays around.) Through over 350 pages Rusbidger chronicles the personal discovery of what it means to commit oneself to the mastery of a great work of art.

During this period of his life, while sitting at the editors desk of The Guardian, he must deal with several major issues and stories, any one of which could have commanded all of his attention. There were three primary stories which compete with Chopin, 1) the need of traditional newspapers to find new business models to survive in the internet age 2) The Guardian was one the primary outlets for Julian Assange and Wikileaks 3) the Murdock news organizations engaged in massive illegal wire tapping of celebrities, politicians, and even crime victims, The Guardian broke the story.

Throughout the year leading up the next summer music camp Rusbidger shares the same struggles we all face in finding a balance between our work and our art. Unlike the rest of us, he has the opportunity to interview several internationally know pianists who share their thoughts about his adventure including, Emanuel Ax, Murray Perahia, and Alfred Brendel. In the end he finds that life has conspired against him, and though he has made remarkable progress by the next summer’s music camp, he is far from ready for a real “performance”. He reset the goal and plays on a couple different occasions in December of last year 1 1/2 years after starting to work on his project against the impossible.

He admits his performance is far from what one would expect from a professional pianist, but he and his audience found it a profoundly musical experience nonetheless. And here I think is the most important point of his writing. It is a celebration of the amateur’s music making. We often overlook the importance of music making in the living room as we get caught up in the celebrity of the concert hall or recording studio. Which is really more important to the art, Andras Schiff recording all of Bach’s Partitas or Mrs. Jones, down the street, learning her first Prelude and Fugue?




Rejoice, Rejoice, Believers (Llangloffan)

Text by: Laurentius Laurenti 1700
Translated by: Sarah B Findlater 1854
Tune: Llangloffan, a Welsh hymn melody

Here is one of four tunes I have recorded for this text:
https://youtu.be/x5FlK-CtGsY

Rejoice, rejoice, believers, And let your lights appear;
The evening is advancing, And darker night is near.
The bridegroom is arising And soon is drawing nigh.
Up, pray and watch and wrestle; At midnight comes the cry.

The watchers on the mountain Proclaim the bridegroom near;
Go forth as He approaches With alleluias clear.
The marriage feast is waiting; The gates wide open stand.
Arise, O heirs of glory; The bridegroom is at hand.

The saints, who here in patience Their cross and sufferings bore,
Shall live and reign forever When sorrow is no more.
Around the throne of glory The Lamb they shall behold;
In triumph cast before Him Their diadems of gold.

Our hope and expectation, O Jesus, now appear;
Arise, O Sun so longed for, Over this benighted sphere.
With hearts and hands uplifted, We plead, O Lord, to see
The day of earth’s redemption That sets Your people free!

Allusions to Biblical text abound here! Most hymn books place this hymn within the Advent section. While the advent of something is surely present, it just isn’t the usual sense of Advent we have. The allusions are more appropriate to Revelations than the synoptic Gospels.

A great celebration is here as we await the arrival of the bridegroom and the watchers proclaim he is drawing near. The marriage between the bride (the church) and the bridegroom is at hand.

With the third stanza we have the second Advent for it is now after the saints have born their cross and sufferings shall they live with no more sorrow in the presence of the Lamb of God. This imagery of the Lamb and Bride of Christ can be found in Revelations chapters 19 and 20.

The final stanza calls for the redemption which will set the bridegroom’s people free from this benighted sphere.

Within the celebration of the Advent season sits the anticipation of the second coming of Christ. He came once to save and redeem, and he has promised to come again?

The author is a man who took the name Laurentius Laurenti (1660-1722). He spent most of his life in northern Germany. Laurenti was born: Lorenz Lorenzen but after a year studing music at the university of Rostock he adopted the latinized version of his name, a common practice at the time. In 1684 he became the music director at the Bremen Cathedral and wrote several dozen hymns.

The text was translated by Sarah B. Findlater (1823-1907). She was the wife of a pastor in Lochearnhead, Scotland, which then, as now, is nothing more than a wide spot in the road. Sarah wrote and translated (mostly from German) dozens of hymns throughout her life.

Andrew Remillard



Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing (Nettleton)

Text by Robert Robinson 1758
Tune: Nettleton by John Wyeth 1813

Here is a recording I did of Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing:

https://youtu.be/h69_DRq-MFA

Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing
1. Come, thou Fount of every blessing,
tune my heart to sing thy grace;
streams of mercy, never ceasing,
call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet,
sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it,
mount of thy redeeming love.

  1. Here I raise mine Ebenezer;
    hither by thy help I’m come;
    and I hope, by thy good pleasure,
    safely to arrive at home.
    Jesus sought me when a stranger,
    wandering from the fold of God;
    he, to rescue me from danger,
    interposed his precious blood.

  2. O to grace how great a debtor
    daily I’m constrained to be!
    Let thy goodness, like a fetter,
    bind my wandering heart to thee.
    Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
    prone to leave the God I love;
    here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
    seal it for thy courts above.
    Robert Robinson 1787


As a student of history, I frequently read texts that are several centuries old. Two things often stand out, one is the very poetic and descriptive language used and the presence of archaic words and structures.

Most of our hymns have a two part history. The first is the poetry and the second is the tune and its harmonization. Sometimes we become so accustomed to singing a tune with a poem we never take a close look at the text. So we sing heartily about raising our Ebenezer and never stop to wonder: “What did I just do? Was it polite to do in mixed company?” And in our ignorance we miss the great theological truths of which we sing.

The first stanza speaks to the immeasurable mercies and grace which come from the mount of God’s unchanging love. And as only a poet can do, this mount of God’s unchanging love pivots into the opening phrase of the second verse.
In I Samuel 7:12 it says: “Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen, and called its name Ebenezer; saying, “Thus far the LORD has helped us.””

The Ark of the Covenant had just been returned to the Israelites by the Philistines after they had captured it in battle. The Israelites were struggling with their faithfulness to the one true God. After the Ark had been returned and their enemies vanquished, Samuel took a large stone and set it up between the cities of Mizpah and Shen to mark the help the Israelites had received from God. It became both a monument and a reminder of God’s faithfulness. So when we raise our Ebenezer we are placing a public monument, acknowledging God’s faithfulness to us.

So raising your Ebenezer is a very big deal and most certainly should be done in mixed company. It also speaks to the question: If you were arrested for your faith, would there be enough evidence to convict you? Have you raised an Ebenezer to God’s faithfulness?

Throughout the Old Testament, we read of monuments and alters being built in acknowledgement of Israel’s covenanting with and dependence upon God. Mr. Robert Robinson, back in 1787 reminds us today of the importance of publicly acknowledging our faith and covenant with God.

In the third verse, Robinson writes of his innate inability to remain faithful and his complete dependence upon God to hold himself bound to God. So this public Ebenezer is one more reminder for our ever failing and wandering heart to remember and bind ourselves to God’s everlasting love which he showed in its greatest splendor in the sacrificial love of the cross.

 

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Another 15 Ways to Promote your Studio

1) Create a niche market. Most people specialize in beginners and then everybody else. How about specializing in duets? I have noticed a significant increase in two piano and piano duo playing in the past few years. Piano ensemble work has a lot of challenges for the performer and teacher. Having been a member of a two piano team for many years I know the value of a third pair of ears.

2) Develop a logo. The purpose of a logo is to create a visual reminder of you. The Nike “swish” has become universally recognized as the symbol for Nike. The best logos are very simple but need to be present everywhere you are present from your business card to your recital programs.

3) T-shirts or sweatshirts with your name and logo on them for your students. Here is a great walking advertisement for your studio!

4) Articles in the local newspaper. Small, local newspapers will often run 300 – 500 word articles about local businesses. The best part is that it doesn’t cost anything. You need to contact the local paper’s editorial depart to see what their procedures are for submitting an article.

5) Develop a school music presentation. Back in the days when I would go on a tour I had developed a program around Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition which I would play at elementary schools in the cities I was playing in. Various pictures were displayed on a screen while I played and gave a running commentary for the children.

6) Offer lessons at places people gather. Your local YMCA is one place not normally associated with music lessons, but they are often looking for other types of programs for their members. I know of two YMCA’s which offered music lessons as part of their programs at one time.

7) Offer music programs designed for young children at after school care facilities and early educational centers such as Montessori schools.

8) Offer lessons at a senior center or a retirement center.

9) Sponsor a team. While Jimmy maybe interested in baseball, his sister Suzy may want to play the piano. It is not just your team who will know about your studio, but the parents of every team they play and the parents whose children are playing before and after your team’s games.

10) Display banners at local sports arenas. My son played years of hockey and I sat with parents of school aged children in many different ice rinks and saw a lot of local businesses’ banners hanging all around the arena. Why not yours? You might be surprised how inexpensive this is to do.

11) Reprint any ads or articles about your studio and pass them out to everybody. Yes, most will be thrown away, but some will be read and maybe passed on to others.

12) Join a civic organization. Become the go to music person for the local Rotary Club or Kiwanis clubs.

13) Offer gift certificates for lessons. This would be a great Christmas present for someone. Put together a package of a month or two of lessons and a book. You will get paid in advance and may gain a new student by the time the gift certificate is used up.

14) Use testimonials in your marketing. A couple of testimonials from either the parents or the children of only a couple dozen words can become a significant marketing tool.

15) Write a newsletter. This is a great way to keep everybody informed about important dates, you can include policy reminders and even more important include informational articles. Always leave your readers a little smarter for having read your newsletter. Give them something of value each time they pick it up and they are much more likely to pick it up again and maybe even share it with someone else.

Andrew Remillard
ANRPiano.com
Andrew@anrpiano.com

 

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Earlier this year, just before Easter, I effectively lost the use of my left hand due to arthritis. I had surgery to restore some functionality and while the surgery went fine, the infection which followed was devastating. When I was admitted to the hospital I feared that anything which hurt this much could not stay attached to my body. But through the grace of modern medicine, the skill and patience of my doctors and nurses, the love of my wife Diane, and the many prayers from my fellow Christians I survived and have been able to return to my seat behind the keyboard.

Throughout this episode I had the time to reflect on a number of questions. Before I knew for sure that my hand would work well enough to play again I considered why was it so important for me to play again?
In Matthew 25:14-30 Jesus tells the parable of the master who gives his three servants various amounts of talents to manage in his absence. I had always assumed that my “talent” had been the ability to play and share my skill with others. For me to play is an act of worship. All of the many hours of preparation leading up to the first notes of the Prelude are an act of sacrifice and worship. Every day of the week I would rise and plan my day around the my preparation for each Sunday. And now I feared that this would soon end.

God and I had already faced the greatest test when my son Kurt died and I knew he was always faithful. So as I laid in the hospital and then spent weeks in occupational therapy I came to realize that my ability and opportunity to worship God extends to everything I do, not just my piano playing. How I treat my neighbor and how I encourage my brothers and sisters every day is an act of worship. The patience you show a restless child is an act of worship and the patience you show the careless driver is also an act of worship. The daily practice of life provides opportunities to worship our God. We don’t do this to “feel good” or for any other purpose. Worship is an expression than God is altogether worthy of worship and is deserving of our faithful worship for no other reason.

So Sunday morning as we gather together to worship corporately, when you first hear the piano or the band begin to play please join us for we are here to worship, we are here to bow down, and we are here to say that you’re our God.



Trace decay vs. interference.

There are two schools of thinking regarding the cause of forgetting. The first, trace decay, came out of Ebbinghaus’s work. He showed that time was the primary cause of a loss of memory.

There have been other approaches to the question of memory and forgetting. Scientists such as F. C. Barlett used stories instead of word lists to look at the effect time had on memory. He would have subjects read brief stories and then test their recollection of those stories at various time intervals up to 6 months. Though Barlett initially set out his work as a criticism of Ebbinghaus , especially in his use of non-sense syllables; Barlett’s work showed similar types and degrees of memory loss as could be explained in Ebbinghaus’s work.

Another explanation for forgetting was developed in later years and that is the “interference theory”. Briefly, it states that material learned both before and after the target material interferes with the retention of the designated material. A typical example of this type of study would be the following: 3 groups of subjects, one learns the paired group of words A-B and C-D (car – dog and tree – road). The second learns A-B and A-C, and the third would learn just A-B. The groups would then be tested on their ability to accurately recall the various lists. The results typically were the A-B only group would do the best. The A-B and C-D group would do noticeably worse on their A-B list as well as their C-D lists. The A-B and A-C group though would do the worst over all. They would intermix their two lists. This is not unlike the problems we often encountered in repetitive sections in music where the repeated sections have slight variations. It is a common problem to intermix the sections, ultimately having trouble extracting one’s self from the section.



My answer to this question will come shortly, but first let’s consider some issues commonly found in answering this question.

It is often heard that you should not put your piano near a window. This rule of thumb was more true say in 1917 than in 2017. Windows in 1917 did not seal as tightly as modern windows do and homes were much less air tight, particularly around windows. Subsequently, there was more air movement and climate variability nearer the windows than on the inside walls. While the inside wall may still be more stable today, the difference is pretty negligible.

However, sun light, whether it is from 1917 or 2017 is pretty hard on a piano. But in 1917 you were much more likely to have heavy drapes around the windows both to dampen the air movement and block out excess sunlight. Today, we just let the sun pore in, we even will put in sky lights if possible. All of this high powered light will heat your piano, especially the ubiquitous black pianos, causing as much tuning instability as the 1917 walls and windows. Sun light will also fade the color out of any wood finished furniture and flooring.

What about the basement family entertainment area? Modern basements are certainly drier than those found in older homes however by their very nature the humidity levels are higher, sometimes much higher than those found on upper levels of the home. I have a friend who has a newer home and his basement flooded in this spring’s heavy rains. He was able to get his guitars out of his basement, but if his piano has been there he would have lost it. As a general rule I would assume any piano which has been in a basement for more than two years as little to no economic value left. Yes, some will still be fine, but most suffer from mold and animal and insect infestations you can’t see from the outside.

Some modern homes with open floor plans will have large sitting areas on their second floors which make for great, out of the way, places for their pianos. Don’t try to do this on your own! That turn you walk so easily through every day can be nearly impossible for a 500 pound upright to navigate except on its side. Heavy pianos will also destroy those beautiful wood stairs you just had refinished. Let the professionals do it and don’t just go with the cheapest quote, pay the extra for the best movers in town.

OK, so sunlight is bad, windows, as long as they are shut are less bad, and basements are deadly, where can I put my piano?

Where ever you want to! My first rule on piano placement and use is to enjoy it! I can fix everything else. If you like to play by the windows flung wide open in your 100 year old, original condition house, go for it! I personally love to play with the windows open and fresh air flowing all around me. You just may want to tune your piano more often, that is all. If your kids love to jam in the basement with their friends and the pianos gets all moldy, so what! Who would trade that experience for anything?

Put your piano where ever you want and enjoy it for the rest of your life, otherwise why bother.



It is a common experience that repetition impacts memory. The more a passage is repeated on day 1 of practice, the better condition it is in when the next day’s work begins. But how much practice does it require to maintain “X” amount of material? How much retention is gain for each repetition? At what point does the diminishing returns outweigh the value of the additional retention?

Ebbinghaus did a series of double tests to find the answer to these questions. He learned 6 series of 16 syllable lists, repeating each list either 8, 16, 24, 32, 42, 53, or 64 times. The next day he repeated the tests, the results were remarkably consistent across all levels of study. Through the course of his study he found that it took an average of 31 repetitions to learn a list of 16 syllables. So the lists learned 8, 16, and 24 times were not learned to his standard of error free reproduction. However the 42, 53, and 64 repetition lists were significantly over studied for his standard.

The next day he relearned the lists and recorded the amount of repetitions and time it took to learn each list to his standard. The results across all lists was an average savings of 12.7 seconds with each test set of 6 lists falling within the narrow range of 12 and 13.7 seconds saved. The average savings per list (out of the 6) was 2.1 seconds and the average time it took to read a list was 6.6 – 6.8 seconds. On average, across the entire exercise he experienced a savings of one repetition for every three repetitions done the preceding day.

And as for the question of diminishing returns, the greatest savings occurred at the 42 repetition level. Some of this he attributed to: “An increase of the readings used for the first learning beyond 64 repetitions proved impracticable, at least for six series of this length. For with this number each test requires about 3/4 of an hour, and toward the end of this time exhaustion, headache, and other symptoms were often felt which would have complicated the complicated(sic) (I think the translation should have said “results”) of the test if the number of repetitions had been increased.”

So when your students asks “Do I really need to play it again????” You can say quite confidently: “Yes, Dr. Ebbinhaus says do it 42 times!” It is indeed true that repetition is the mother of all learning. In coming articles we will look at the effect of thoughtful repetition.



The first area of memorization Ebbinghaus looked at in his dissertation was the effect of the length of the list of non-sense syllables he learned. His first observation was that lists of 7 or fewer required just one reading to be reproducible by memory. This observation is later verified by other researchers as the usual size of the short term memory. The short term memory is often described as having the capacity of 5 – 7 “chunks” of information and lasting no more than 15 seconds.

As the number of syllables increased to 12 the average number of repetitions required for the first errorless reproduction increased to 16.6. Adding just 4 more syllables added nearly 14 more repetitions. The next addition of 8 syllables (24 total) added another 14 repetitions and the final addition of 15 syllables (39 total) added only 11 (55 total) repetitions.

Number of syllables/ Number of repetitions necessary for first errorless reproduction (exclusive of it)
in a series

  7  /                   1
  12     /                  16.6
  16     /                  30.0
  24     /                  44.0
  39     /                  55.0

While we could say that if the final group of 39 syllables had been learned in groups of 7 or fewer it would have taken far less effort to get to the first errorless reproduction, we will see in later parts of his dissertation the effect of practice on retention. Retention is the only thing which matters after all.



The life expectancy of a piano is a difficult concept for most people to fully understand. With prices usually falling within the range of an automobile, most people think in terms of the life expectancy of a car, plus maybe a little. I have had people say of a 10 year old piano: “It is getting pretty old isn’t it?” If this were a car, certainly we are closer to the end than the beginning.

So how long will a piano last? Let’s start by assuming a reasonably normal home setting, where a couple of the kids take a couple years of lessons and one takes 10 years of lessons and actually gets to some early advanced music. The top of the piano is used to display family pictures and the bench is used to hold years worth of completed music books.

Well, our bench is deteriorating rapidly and our piano is still in nearly like new condition. And we are only 10 years old. For the next ten years the pianos sits in the living room untouched except for an occasional holiday visit from the kids.

Keep in mind that the family has probably had three or four primary cars over this time period. And still the original piano sits in the living room.

After 20 years is usually when the piano will go into motion. Mom and Dad want it out of the house. If one of the kids wants it; they get it. If not, it gets sold to another family. Hopefully it will be moved by professional piano movers!

And the story is repeated. Typically, a piano will stay in a home for a generation. It is very rare to find used pianos less than 20 years old, because most are still in their original homes. Most 20 year pianos have had only a half dozen years of moderate playing on them. After two generations, we may only have had 10 years of steady use out of a 40 year age. There are certainly exceptions, some pianos receive very hard playing over decades and show great wear from this use; others virtually none.

So back to our question: How long will my piano last?

A great way to think of this is in terms of a home. When a home is brand new, the first couple of years are spent dealing with the various odd problems which may crop up. After that a home may be trouble free for decades.

If only two people live in the house and they are gentle in its use, things will wear out only very slowly. On the other hand if a large family of teenagers move in, the house is likely to wear much faster; the carpets wear out faster, the doors break sooner, and so on.

With reasonable care and normal wear, a house should last many generations. Certainly, at some point a portion or all of it may be rebuilt (just like a piano).

So, how long will your piano last? It depends on how much use and the type of use it receives. If the use is gentle it will last for generations; 60 – 80 years. If the use is heavier; it could last only 40 – 60 years before it will need to be replaced or rebuilt.

So a 10 year old piano in a normal use environment is a young child. A 20 year old piano is a very young adult with its best years ahead. A 40 year old piano is starting to show it age a bit (aren’t we all). A 60 year old piano is getting a little tired and may need a very thorough examination to determine its health. And an 80 year piano is in need of replacement or rebuilding.