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Chapter Seventeen - A High School Education

I credit Rumi with a lot. We have known each other forever as we played in both the Meremblum and CSUN youth orchestras together and carpooled sophomore year at UCLA (so she accurately knows how many times I skipped class).


She is currently on faculty at the Colburn School.





After the Unfrozen Music concert, I wanted to continue classical piano. Was it do Unfrozen again, or was it something bigger? We talked all the time. What pieces should I play? Wouldn’t it be cool to do a recital? Do you think people would come if I did? Do you think I should do it at Colburn?


Finally, after eight or so months, a frustrated Rumi goes, “Stop talking about it and pick a date!”


I was planning to go to Hawaii in the fall. In fact, I had just completed P90X, so I was in the best shape of my life and really ready to go to Kauai and Maui. In one fell swoop, I cancelled the vacation and decided I was giving a recital.

I knew “Totentanz” would be on the program, of course. But what else? My plan for this was to be a one and done deal, so I wanted to pack in as much as I could into one performance. I found out later, it was too much.


This is not to say don’t be over ambitious in your planning, but also, know how to edit.


Like many of us, I was first exposed to Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” in its grand orchestral version arranged by Maurice Ravel. But it was not until I heard Barry Douglas perform it in its original form, as a piano piece, during the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1986 on PBS that I fell in love with it.


Most pianists, when approaching this virtuosic work, attempt to emulate

the symphonic version. Douglas does no such thing, making it a true piano solo and causing you to forget you ever heard it played by an orchestra.

Modeste Mussorgsky wrote “Pictures” as a tribute to his close friend, Viktor Hartmann, an artist and architect, who died suddenly of an aneurysm at age 39 in 1873. Both men were devoted to Russian art, and Mussorgsky wrote the piece in six weeks as a tour through a gallery of Hartmann’s work.


Sergei Rachmaninov’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” is based on Niccolo Paganini’s final “Caprice” for violin. “Rhapsody” is a series of 24 variations for piano and orchestra, with the 18th Variation being one of the most famous pieces of all time. In his ingenuity, Rachmaninov simply inverted Paganini’s theme – played upside down from A minor to Db Major to create a lush, unforgettable melody.


As Liszt had written “Totentanz” as a showcase piece for himself, Rachmaninov, one of the most legendary pianists of his time, debuted his “Rhapsody on a Theme” with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski. (Rachmaninov had also performed “Totentanz”).


I had flirted with “Pictures” and the Rachmaninov in high school, but by no means were they in my repertoire, nor were my piano playing skills even remotely legendary.


While making further decisions on programming, Stef and I went to a “Jacaranda: Music on the Edge” piano concert. We heard the Prokofiev “Toccata, Opus 11”, and I knew immediately it was going to be the opener of the program.


Turns out “Chopsticks” was easier. There were nine months to go.

When I told everyone about this recital idea, there was the expected eye rolling and trepidation.


“You need to go take lessons,” says my mom.


“You need to come in for lessons,” says Heewon. “Are you going to take lessons?” asks Rumi.


So here I was, at my first lesson in a couple (20+) years, playing “Pictures at an Exhibition” for Heewon. Let me reiterate. When you drop your piano performance major your first quarter of college, no matter how many musicals you play, how much you tinker, how many film scores you write, how much you practice... you have the equivalent of a high school education.


Too much pedal, hands out of balance, uneven scales, more too much pedal, too many wrong notes, too heavy, too much pedal again, too tense and too much dang pedal. This lesson was during the middle of a Wednesday, and I came back to work too exhausted and too dejected to do anything too productive except think about how not to use too much pedal.


The difference, however, between practicing when you’re 17 and practicing when you’re older than 17 with a recital looming on the horizon, is that you use your time much more efficiently and with purpose.


Yes, I felt set back a couple months with Heewon’s comments. But by the time I walked in for lesson number two a few weeks later almost all action items in the above paragraph had been checked off the list.


At this session, however, we discovered that I had developed a ridiculously bad playing habit. Heewon pointed out my fingernails were clicking still, but my nails were not long. What she suddenly realized was that I was playing on the tips of my fingers, not the pads. I was lacking proper articulation and portions of the music were not even. I was compensating by swinging my elbows or wrists wildly around, and my fingers were sliding up and down the keys vertically to catch the notes. It HAD to be corrected... immediately.


I ended up going back to Colburn that night to start working on it. It was a profound change.


This was the way I had been playing all my life, not just a habit I developed since quitting the piano performance major.


The difference was immense. The fingers became lighter and more articulate... more even and more controlled. Not perfect yet, but a HUGE step in the right direction. I also couldn’t sleep that night because of the pain of using new muscle groups.


The most pleasant surprise during recital prep came when I called up another accompanist, Michael Sushel, to talk to him about doing the show. I had worked with him several times in the past, including at my senior high school recital. Amazing accompanist.


It’s odd to call people twenty years later because you’re not sure if they’ll remember you. Michael knew who I was immediately. It took him all of thirty seconds to say yes.


In the time since, he has become not only my accompanist, but my coach, mentor and therapist all in one. Also, a tremendous friend.


The only problem now was that I had spent so many months learning the repertoire, by the time I got myself in to see Heewon and Michael for coaching, it was a matter of weeks before the recital date. My high school piano education was showing itself. It was a huge setback to have to re-learn technique that was either lost or never learned.


The clock was ticking. (I knew this because Kim texted me the countdown twice that day.)


Michael was amazing about the Rachmaninov when we rehearsed, meaning he never outwardly came out and told me how alarmingly bad it was. But by T-minus ten days to the recital, it was pretty clear that the “Rhapsody on a Theme” was going to be a bust.


The question became was this recital going to be last call? Or was I going to continue with music. If it were to be the only time I would get on stage, then the Rachmaninov should stay. It would be sloppily awesome, and my friends would support me regardless.


If I were going to continue, I could pull Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” out of this air, which I had learned in high school, and substitute one Rhapsody for another. I could fake my way through “Blue” and leave the Rachmaninov for another day.


We voted. I said Gershwin. Michael abstained. Heewon and Rumi said don’t replace the Rach with anything because the program was too long. I was producing the show and am naively ambitious, so I counted triple. We went with the Gershwin.


What I had not factored in was the journey... learning at a very high level on something you were better than proficient at. This concert was not about perfection, but about sharing where I was on the path. It would be a marker in the road as I continued to study.


The support and knowledge I got from Heewon and Michael would eventually lead me to ask them onto the Board of the Inception Orchestra in 2017.

But for now... March 3, 2012, 7:30 p.m. – Zipper Hall at the Colburn School.

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