Tuesday, November 3, 2015

"Opening the Shutters*

John Kenneth Adams

Recent headlines proclaim the extraordinary amount of time the young spend on mass
media. Between 7 and 9 hours a day is the new norm. The fact that so little study has
been done in any scientific way to filter through all this is equally disturbing. It is
hard to have direct personal communication today as so many are addicted to their
mobile devices. Empathy is the greatest casualty.

Students! Please take out your ear phones, turn off your cellphones, delay that next
tweet or Instagram, and take out your scores. Teachers! Place your 50 most
pressing worries, your menu for dinner, and your imminent foreclosure on the back
burner....then greet your next student.

What now? Perhaps the silence might be daunting for you both.

It is just this silence that is the life spring of music, that silence from which creativity
flows. It is a precious commodity today. The ability to be quiet and prepare ourselves
for entering the special world of creativity is at the center of all learning.

There is a certain lack of beauty today in education. Try not to let mass media take over
your life to the point where you miss out on spontaneous human connections. Look up,
not down What is lacking in schools and homes must be supplied by teachers who are
committed to their own and their student's personal development. Proper learning is a
dialogue, not just a solo aria.

We have to coach the young to find ways to discover beauty in themselves and believe that they possess unique and precious gifts of self expression. Music demands that we be quiet and make a space around it. Certainly this discipline of quiet and space can help one learn any subject on a higher level of understanding.

So many educators fail to notice this simple fact: test scores go through the roof when
nurtured with the arts. Business leaders miss the point that human emotions drive achievement more than any body of dry statistics and profit driven mantras.

We must never forget the basics of musical expression and the long established rules for
unlocking musical thought. The most potent force in music is the power of melody. It
can often be just a fragment, but even this can suggest much more than thought possible.

I am thrilled when a student says “I just love this bit/” Often, it is just a
couple of chords, or just a subtle shift in harmony.

Ask yourself how many times you have been moved by just an unexpected shift from
major to minor, or the flight in the melodic line to a place you thought impossible.

We must go deeper into the music. We must teach pieces that are on the near side of
attainable and not so demanding that the student loses track in the search for solutions.
We must dig into that quiet spot where music aesthetics dwell, sorting out good taste
from bad taste. Students need to be presented with an ideal. As Plato said, if you
want to appreciate beauty, then you must first contemplate beauty.

Place what is possible in a direct way in front of your students, and take time
to find those places that evoke a response from them. Explore all the reasons that
make them feel that way. Ask them every lesson what they like in their pieces, and
if there is a roadblock, be honest enough to explore more than one solution. The goal
is to have many solutions, realizing the most complex situations are solved with
simplicity. You can't solve complexity with complexity. Above all, have a healthy
respect for the fact that not everything in music is explainable.

Face up to a changed world and learn the language of the young..Incorporate the best
features of new media techniques for learning, but don't let tt be a crutch for not
searching into your own imagination. Include those with handicaps in your class. They
will teach you more than you could possibly teach them. In the process never forget you
have a tremendous world of experience to share. This will give you confidence and
support you when you feel down.

Many of you will live to see a new attitude towards education. Trying to cram down
learning by endless testing and rote teaching will give way to a more pragmatic approach,
one that has learned the value of human connection. Emotions stirred by creativity build
new pathways in the brain, opening the shutters to a world where work and contemplation
go hand in hand.

When you find the quiet spot, you will have found the center of creativity...that great
wellspring of all emotion.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

"Conversations in Music" proves a good formula for the times....

Brahms is still on my mind. This tree out my window reminds me of his sound . . burnished hues of gold, brown, orange, red, with stratas of green and yellow. I must play more of his music in the years ahead. Last night I returned to Charleston to fill an emergency request after a cancellation on their series. It was a good turnout for an
Election Night, a mixture of Town and Gown.

I was struck by the beauty of sound of the Steinway in Lightsey Chapel. Gene Koester selected it personally in NYC. It has similar qualities to my personal Steinway Concert Grand, especially in the richness and depth of the sound. My Steinway is always challenging to others, as it has a very firm action, which use to be the standard feel of the instrument. In recent decades piano actions have become much lighter in general, the tone spot often hard to feel under you, especially when dealing with the nerves and pressures of public performance. Of the six pianos I have played since mid-September, five have been Steinway. School pianos get knocked around, there is no getting around it. I have to say the Steinway at Winthrop was especially rewarding, as was the sound in the venerable old hall. So much for pianos!

I continue to explore my new "Conversations in Music". It is challenging focusing audiences today in this modern world of technology. Everything is built on speed and
instant connections. Music of depth, be it pure classical, film scores, standards of
Kern, Gershwin, Rogers,...will always win through. Its great fun to be rid of some of
the constraints of former years, and now play anything I like for anybody to listen to.
Nothing replaces the art of live performance.

Sunday, October 19, 2014


Last March I attended the Commonwealth Day Service in Westminster Abbey. Queen Elizabeth looked radiant, belying her 88 years by walking up stairs unaided, as did Prince Phillip,now into his 90's. They are both amazing and seem to have endless energy and interests. The principal speaker was Malala Yousafzai, who has just won the Noble Peace Prize. Her classmates were seated just in front of us, and Malala stood with her Lady Principal in the aisle as the audience filed in. She goes to school in Birmingham, having been brought to the UK for medical treatment by Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Westminster is a difficult space to see anyone, but I walked to the front where an
attendant showed me where the Queen would sit (at the very end of the Choir, on a huge oak chair) and where Malala would speak (from the huge pulpit) and indeed she was right
in front of us. When the Royals came in (we had been seated for over an hour) all we saw was the tops of their hats, as everyone of course stood up. I must say, hearing "God Save the Queen" with full organ blasting away with full choir and congregation made for a real tingle. Elizabeth is very dear to my generation. We saw her often as a young lady in the newsreels during the Second World War, and followed her as she joined the Women's Auxiliary Territorial Corps and learned to be an auto mechanic! Her father George VI told her she couldn't just sit around the palace, much to her delight. When she married Prince Phillip we got up before dawn to hear the service on the radio.

Malala is a force. Her speech was obviously the words of a 16 year old girl, but the power of her presence is very forceful. She has the aura of one chosen to lead. She gives basically the same message over and over, mainly that it is everyone's right to be educated...and of course as a professor and artist, I have always had the same goal. There is something of the miracle in hearing such a young voice give life to this hope for universal knowledge.

Since she has won the Noble Peace Prize, the articles about her have revealed the double edged sword she has experienced in her homeland of Pakistan. While she is revered by millions, she is reviled by many as being an embarrassment to her government, and the product of a publicity driven father and others out for financial gain. They say her father writes all her speeches, that she is a weapon of Western Agents out to shame Pakistan and some go as far to say that her shooting was all an arranged affair. I know this sounds crazy, but in the turmoil of present day Pakistan very believable. The fact that she has risen above all this is a tribute to the truth of her message.

A few days after returning home I read in the London Telegraph that the Queen has made known her discomfort with the short set of stairs that leads up to the choir in Westminster. I remember looking at them while standing at the front with the nice lady attendant, and wondering why they looked so steep and no visible rail. I am always looking for rails these days....funny what you noticed as you approach 80. The Queen is
terrifically spry for her age, but I agree with her! Give us rails and we can conquer the World!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014


"Thank you so much for giving such a wonderful performance at the
church and for your generosity in donating the proceeds to the
on-going series. You are indeed fortunate to have so many close
friends who support you in London and they likewise in your talent
for enthusing an audience with anecdotes and consummate playing.
A rare gift!"
Simon Markson
London, October 2014

Trans-Atlantic travel these days is crowded and impersonal, everyone's head buried in
the Web. Its odd seeing everyone looking down, and dangerous too. Its almost a new
kind of public space, where you have to assume the person coming at you like a rocket
doesn't care if you land on your behind, while they plunge ever forward, looking for
who knows what.

With this as a backdrop, 15 days in London is always a thrill. Once there, the vibe becomes what you will. Piccadilly is always jammed, the main artery that connects
Hyde Park with Piccadilly Circus. If you want a view of the current world population, just sit on a bench and watch as the huge tide of humanity passes by. Escape is always
close at hand in London, a few steps can take you into the vast green spaces of the parks, or just to side streets that suddenly become neighborhoods where the city seems far away.

My particular path usually takes me along the C2 bus route, a rather charming flashback
to a more sedate London of years ago. It runs from Victoria, around Berkeley Square, and then Upper Regent's Street to the outlying Parliamemt Hill Fields, where you can walk up the path to overlook the City of London, St.Paul's dome still dominating the horizon just by sheer presence alone, even through huge modern towers are rising everywhere.

I hop off at Albany Street, an almost hidden corner of London, where street life seems that of decades ago. Markson Pianos and I have a long history. When I took a sabbatical in 1969, I rented a small piano from them for my room, and over the years I have used their practice rooms for concert preparation. They are the largest piano rental operation in London, and one has to get use to the continuous moving of pianos in and out. It's a bit like "The Piano Shop Around the Corner", but on a bigger scale. I always love being around the piano restoration area. Young women are entering this once male dominated area, and this has brought a whole new atmosphere with it.

Five years ago, Markson Pianos established a concert series in the nearby Saint Mary Magdalen Church, an imposing Gothic style church, although build in the Victorian Era.
In late September I did a recital for them, returning to the series after three years.
The price of a ticket includes a glass of wine at the close, and that makes for a genial atmosphere. The "Suite Bergamasque" was a huge hit with the audience, and one forgets its more than "Clair de lune", which, by he way, gains immensely by it's surrounding pieces. It is also quite long, as Debussy took his time. The "Passepied" is nine pages, and no place to ever take your hands off the keys.

I played a group of pieces from British films from the 1940's, including the haunting "The Dream of Olwen" by Charles Williams, who also wrote the theme song for "The Apartment". A rarity was the "Cornish Rhapsody" by Hubert Bath, and it is quite virtuoso and involved. The biggest rarity was "Tomorrow" from "The Constant Nymph", the long unseen movie with Joan Fontaine and Charles Boyer, recently re- discovered by Turner Classics.The composer of this is none other than Erich Korngold, who by this time had established himself as one of the greatest composers in film, after fleeing the Nazi invasions in Vienna. We forget that Korngold was hailed as the "New Strauss", and his music has legions of admirers.

As a present to my London friends, I made an arrangement of three classics about the City, including "A Foggy Day in London Town", "Limehouse Blues" and "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square". It was fun weaving a portion of each song into the next one, ending in a series of stacked chords (the way Marian McPartland showed me decades ago), and of course, the chimes of Big Ben at the close. I was almost too clever, but my goodness, how they loved it.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Stillness in Art.....

A swing around the state last week let me take the temperature of artistic
appreciation at two schools of widely varying missions. Returning to the
South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts in Greenville after a five
year absence, I found a strong sense of mission and a warm environment. Like
all schools that can afford it, there is a broader range of administrative
positions in place, in other words, more people to handle the outreach,
publicity, student welfare...the list is rather impressive. The facility
has really outgrown its physical space, and probably was built too small
in the first place. For instance, there is no hall big enough to seat the
entire student body.

All the above aside, I was there to do a masterclass for piano students, and
on the heals of that, a Piano Portrait entitled "The Young Debussy". The
masterclass was well prepared, and the students were receptive and flexible.
One can only do so much with a student playing a large work in the span of
half an hour, so the challenge is to strike a balance between the immediately
possible, and the attainable in the next few days or weeks. Stephen Taylor, one
of our own from USC School Of Music, is doing a fine job, working well within the
limits of having his students for only two or three years. He has brought a stable
environment to the piano area, and has the right personality to reach high school
age students.

As for the Piano Portrait, the setting up of the equipment was a bit dicey, as the
young man doing the set up was not very familiar with PowerPoint. Nevertheless,
a picture finally appeared on the screen, and was big enough to be effective in
a large space. It rather amuses me that very few actually tackle PowerPoint as
a creative tool. It rather remains in the charts, graphs, numbers milieu, beloved
by people who have to present that kind of information in their work. Going beyond
this into the creative world of sound, image, performance and theater, is quite a
different world. The medium is still the message, but the power of imagination and
creativity can lift the whole medium to an entirely different level.

I was impressed with the quality of listening from 100 young musicians. There is
such power in the stillness of quiet passages, allowing the performer, if all systems
are on go, to weave a spell. IS there anything more profound than total quiet from
an audience absorbed in the music?

Returning to Winthrop University is always a pleasure. The huge auditorium in the midst
of the campus still dominates the landscape. Winthrop has such a distinguished history
in bringing music education to the fore in South Carolina in the early 20th Century.
I played there first 50 years ago, and returned many times over the years, not only for
my own performances, but to hear many great artists who performed there. I remember
particularly a performance by Arthur Rubinstein, where an overflow audience extended
onto the stage. The New York Philharmonic under Pierre Boulez was another landmark

There is a feeling of deja-vu at Winthrop. The music facilities remain the same as
decades before, and obviously their facility has served them well, if somewhat faded
today. The small recital hall has the most wonderful Steinway concert grand, and it
fills the long, narrow hall easily. The PowerPoint slides looked gorgeous, and the
audience was attentive and supportive throughout a 70 minute presentation. Matt Manwarren is a calming presence, and he had a large class of students in attendance.It was wonderful also to have Ann Herlong in the audience, a fine pianist who has contributed so much to our state over the years. I am impressed with many of the younger faculty at the many colleges and universities around South Carolina. The fact that so many attended USC is a feather in our cap. Its amazing to look back over half a century and witness the musical growth in our state.

Monday, September 8, 2014

A Long Summer ...full of work and memories

I am just finishing up six months at home without any trips anywhere! I had to admit it
was the very first time in 50 years that I had spent the entire summer in Columbia. I guess that makes me practically a native son. I did this by choice. Since retiring I have added up almost 20 trips to Europe, and almost all have included stays in the UK. After coming home from Holland and England in March 2014, I felt it was time to pay attention to my house and garden, and to go through personal items I want to pass on to family and friends. Its very liberating getting rid of things...or should I say "treasures", as everything I have in this house brings a memory. About half my music library has been passed on, and another section of it has been sorted, and it is ready to depart. I have kept a basic library, but I have to admit I had to buy new copies of Bach and Beethoven, as mine were in a fragile state. I love passing on music, much of which was passed on to me over the years.

We had a lush early summer, and only in late August did it offer a few oppressive days near 100 degrees...just enough to remind us what it is like. I often think of all the summers I taught the first summer term. It always seemed to be the hottest when I would offer a workshop for pianists. Many times we faced high temperatures going to and fro, but thankfully the AC always functioned, so we were comfortable. I often had a group of teachers from the upstate, and that was nice, as most people from the upstate thought of USC in those days as a Den of Iniquity. I remember one day during class I was demonstrating the use of arm weight, going into all sorts of contortions to get the idea across. One nice lady from Greenville offered to be the guinea pig, so she sat at the piano, and obviously had a lot of good solid knowledge, as she played with complete physical freedom and made a gorgeous sound. I was thrilled, and said "Virginia, you are the LOOSEST WOMAN in South Carolina!" I was the perfect example of speak first and think later. To this day I still get a Christmas Card signed "the Loosest Woman in S.C. Love, Virginia."

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Jan Luyken Straat - Amsterdam

Being in Amsterdam recently after 45 years away was both a shock and familiar
at the same time. I was impressed with the fact that the Dutch character is unchanged, a mixture of love of place, value for value, and wry humor. Its obvious the Dutch love their country, and live outdoors as much as possible. Bicycles are still everywhere, and one learns quickly to not step into a bike lane with an absent mind. The renovated Rijks Museum, closed for ten years, is open again, and greets the public with fabulous public spaces, tasteful displays of art, and the feeling of being in an extremely well run and loved place.

All this brought back a clear memory of playing in the Concertgebouw Recital Room in 1969. I was staying with a very supportive family in Eindhoven for a few days, and then
moved up to Amsterdam into a very strange hotel not far from the hall. The room I was given turned out to be under a staircase, and all night long I heard footsteps over my head, making for very little sleep. The next morning I walked around the neighborhood, and came upon a very small hotel in a row of houses on Jan Luyken Straat. There was only a very small plaque by the door, and after I rang the bell, the door opened, but
as is the case in most houses like this in Amsterdam, the person opening the door was
standing at the top of a rather steep set of stairs. The door was opened by pulling a lever, which opened the door below. I asked if there was a free room, and she said yes, come on up and see for yourself. I said I was up the street in a terrible room, and needed absolute quiet. We went to the attic room on the back side, and there I found the most wonderful atmosphere, with a double window looking down on the gardens below.
No one would walk over my head in this room.

The lady who ran this place lived in a small apartment on the first floor, and in the late afternoon, early evening, she kept her door open to greet guests, and offer a glass of sherry. She was interested in my career, and I gave her two free tickets for my "show". She came with a friend, and afterwards she served small sandwiches and wine as we sat around and went over the evening.

I stayed there a couple of more times, before she left to retire on the Costa del Sol
in Spain. She had a devoted clientele, many being business men and women from Hungary, Romania and Austria.

When I was leaving the Rijks Museum, the streetcar passed Jan Luyken Straat, and I
could see the gardens I use to gaze down on from my attic room. Today the old place is a very posh boutique hotel with steep prices. I wonder what my lady would think of that!