Today’s and tommorow’s posts are from guest blogger Sarah Flanagan. I have known Sarah for about 10 years. Her success as a musician, teacher, and most importantly a person has made me very proud to play a small part in her life.

The Best Advice I’ve Ever Been Given
(Or… What Every Potential Music Major Should Know)
By Sarah Flanagan

My name is Sarah Flanagan and I am a former student of Andrew’s.
I took piano lessons from him during the summers revolving around the beginning of my college career. Actually, I came to Andrew to bring me up to speed right before college and then whenever I was home from college I continued with lessons. The summer before freshmen year my new college teacher gave me an assignment to start a Chopin prelude, a Debussy prelude a Beethoven sonata, and a Bach prelude and fugue. I was psyched about the pieces but totally trembling inside too. I needed to be whipped into shape in order to survive my freshmen year and Andrew gave me the tools and advice needed to make it through.

Fast forward almost 11 years and I am now a certified piano teacher with a degree in Keyboard Pedagogy from Cedarville University in Ohio (2006). I keep myself busy with a full studio of piano students, accompanying for the Village Voices choir, accompanying soloists, and playing piano for church. I have just recently finished my term being Secretary of the Downers Grove Music Club. Previously, I had been Vice President of the Downers Grove Music Club and Membership Chairperson for ISMTA Naperville Chapter. Aside from music, I also enjoy gardening, exercising, cooking, organizing women’s meetings for church, and taking care of my husband and dog.

I sometimes think about all of these things I do and positions I have held and wonder what they all really mean. I am certainly not as decorated as many of the teachers out there. Though I do what I can, I very much understand that there are higher degrees to be obtained and loftier positions to be held. When I think deeper into the places I find myself in life though, I think back to the people who have helped me get there. I haven’t achieved the highest degree, but the degree I DO have would be deficient if I had never taken the little golden nuggets of wisdom that many teachers and supporters have given along the way. I could hold more prestigious positions, but the positions I have held mean nothing if I haven’t learned something from the people I deal with in the various organizations I’ve been a part of. I could have twice as many students, but the students I have now would learn nothing if I hadn’t learned some things myself.

All along the way I have been given pieces of advice and pieces of encouragement that have stuck with me and have kept me patient, sane, grounded, calm, and steadfast in my musician’s journey. I’d like to share a couple simple pieces of advice that my former teacher shared with me several years back that have helped me along my way (which includes college and beyond). You may even want to pass these along to your own students who are making their way to college this year.

“Learn to say ‘No’ because many opportunities will arise and you can’t do everything, but you need to be able to choose what things are most important to you and go with them.”

Andrew told me this the summer before I went off to college. I attribute it to my success as a music major. He was right! I couldn’t do everything that presented itself to me. My piano professor expected me to practice daily at least 2 hours BEFORE I did my regular homework. I was left with very little free time at the end of the day, and so I ended up saying “no” to a lot of things in order to focus on doing the things I wanted to do the most. Admittedly, a lot of times I ended up using that free time to relax and enjoy time with friends. And that was ok. I could do the things I wanted to do because I learned to say “no.”

Required reading in one of my pedagogy classes junior year ended up being a book called “Boundaries: When to Say Yes, When to Say No to Take Control of Your Life” by Henry Cloud. I highly recommend this book as it speaks more in depth on this subject. It’s a good read for musician or non-musician alike.

These are the building blocks of all technique. Certainly in the “common practice era” scales were the basic building blocks of music however; the sequential finger work found in diatonic scales is most certainly applicable to more modern sequential patterns. Scales are actually very hard to play well and need the special attention they receive. I have known several adult players who had reasonably developed techniques, yet had never spent much time specifically on scales. This was very evident in their scale playing and other passage work. Smooth flowing scale passage involves a very high degree of technical mastery which is very hard to achieve without specific and extensive effort.

It doesn’t take hours of daily effort (though that is not a bad idea when one is younger and occasionally when one is older) but a lot can be accomplished by even 10 or 15 minutes every day, right at the beginning of the day. Plan out a technical regime of scales, arpeggios, chords, and etc. in all keys for the month, you will find that your progress becomes accumulative. The effort in learning D major will improve the performance incrementally of all other keys. After a couple of years of this effort you will find yourself with a great mastery of the basic building blocks of Western music.

Andrew Remillard


<script async src=”//”></script>
<!– Andrew Remillard –>
<ins class=”adsbygoogle”
(adsbygoogle = window.adsbygoogle || []).push({});

Music is a foreign language and it has many dialects. There is vocabulary, grammar and syntax, meaning and context. As with any language, the better you understand all of its subtleties, the better you can express yourself in that language.

If you compare the harmonic language of Bela Bartok with Serge Rachmaninov’s you can see a significant difference in their use of dissonance even though they lived at the same time. The most stringent dissonances in Rachmaninov’s music would be almost consonant in Bartok’s music.

Understanding the syntax of music allows for a quicker and more accurate recognition of patterns and structure. Without this understanding everything is meaningless randomness which happens to sound nice. While French may be pleasing to listen to as a harmonious language, I have no idea of the meaning behind those sounds so my appreciation and understanding is severely limited.

Andrew Remillard

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of my favorite rules is: Keep It Simple Stupid! I am often guilty of analyzing a passage or even a written performance instruction to death.

This also reminds us that simplicity is the beginning of expression. We should project the central idea or line and then all else becomes secondary. Playing too many important things makes for a cacophonous mess, or is simply a case of lazy playing. Think about the single most important element and make sure that is clear first.

Many editors also will suggest elaborate fingering schemes which add unnecessary layers of difficulty to otherwise simple passages. I am not nearly smart enough to remember all of this fancy finger dancing so I always choose simple, easy to remember fingering patterns.

Andrew Remillard