It is my conviction that one must fall in love to play Schumann well. I did not at first enjoy practicing his Arabeske, Op. 18; while I understood the piece theoretically, I did not truly understand it emotionally or spiritually until I, like the composer, fell in love. Then, all at once, its nuances and imagery became obvious, for I was better able to empathize with its composer and his situation.
This piece, it became apparent, was born of sweet affection. The story of Robert and Clara Schumann is a familiar one: he was a brooding, poetic soul with a passion for literature and composition and she the prodigious daughter of his piano teacher. Their love was one that overcame distance, disapproval, and even disease as Robert gradually declined due to mental illness.
The Arabeske, Op. 18 was composed during the couple’s three-year engagement while Clara was touring abroad. One of his experiments in small-form writing, the Arabeske is an exquisite example of Schumann’s ability to compact immense ideas into concise creations.In this seemingly-simple piece, reflections of the composer can be discovered. Always torn between his two loves — music and literature — Schumann put elements of both into his work. In the notes of the central motif, we can hear the outline of his beloved’s name: the main theme hangs upon the notes “C” and “A” and might be interpreted as the spelling of “Clara” using the musical alphabet.
Also apparent are the two sides of the composer. In his literary works, Schumann presents himself as both the introspective “Eusebius” and the more extroverted “Florestan.” The opening theme and the first minor passage are reminiscent of the character of Eusebius as they gently flow along but build like an obsession. The more demanding nature of the second minor passage might be considered a Florestian outburst; here the composer is filled with determination! A third character, however, is also present; “Raro,” a name created by combining the last letters of “Clara” and the first letters of “Robert,” is a personification of the balance found in their marriage. This third character resounds in the gentle, bittersweet transition passages and, at last, in the heartfelt conclusion.
There is much more that could be said of this piece. For instance, the ending, comprised of suspensions, sounds like a goodbye across a great distance and the recurring theme carries different connotations with each repetition as the composer considers the same thought with different inflections and emotions. Indeed, I discover something new and lovely with each practice session, but perhaps it is best to let the Arabeske speak for itself, a small love letter from both composer and performer.
As I was practicing piano the other day, I wrote a series of three questions to ask myself as I worked on each detail:
Is it clean?
Is it beautiful?
Does it mean something?
First, I work technically, listening even to exercises to discern if they are played with clarity and precision. Are they clean? The same attention to purity must be given to all other passages, even (perhaps especially) the most Romantic. The greatest pianists play beautifully, but do so over the canvas of excellent technique and clear sound.
Secondly, is it beautiful? Is there a way I could shape this phrase to make it more lovely? Is the sound of the individual note rich and pleasing? How could I voice this to make it even more musical? A great pianist can set audiences to gasping at his exquisite turn of a single phrase. How can I make this phrase such a moment of beauty?
Finally, does it mean something? I was working diligently away on the first two (clarity and beauty) before I was caught by this third principle. I played a phrase surprisingly well and it conjured an image in my mind. It was nothing profound, just a little glimpse of a boat spiraling in a current, but it was enough to give a newfound meaning to the line that I was practicing.
Without meaning, what does it matter if music is beautiful? What does it matter if it is clean if it is not beautiful and, further, does not have meaning? These principles build off of each other not only in music, but in the creation of any art. The artist might (and should) begin with an idea of what he wants to communicate, but he must execute it with technical precision and aesthetic appeal in order to properly convey this meaning. Bearing this constantly in mind as I practice has revived my approach: I am not just playing rote repetitions, but am working with the goal of achieving accuracy so that I can then focus on beauty and, finally, communicate the meaning governing those two.
Being an over-the-top Torrey Honors Institute nerd, I realized that these three principles of effective artistic practice can be aligned with the overarching ideas of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.
Is it good? Are the notes or strokes or words placed with commitment to good technique, adherence to structure, etc.? Is the art made with a spirit working toward excellence? This is convicting, is it not?
Is it beautiful? Once technical excellence is established, it naturally gives the freedom for elegance, color, and expression! The “good” allows for the “beautiful” to be made with greater potential to be both achieved and understood. If our technique is helter-skelter, the likelihood of playing a natural-sounding and well-shaped phrase is extremely low. Artists should take chances, but trying to generate beauty without technical awareness seems a foolish one to take.
Is it true? Clean performance practice and beautiful sound build upon each other to, ideally, generate meaning. Think about writing. We follow the rules of grammar, only breaking them when it serves an intentional purpose, because these set standards promote elegance of expression and clarity of intent in even the most unskilled writers. In the same way, poets often follow structural rules because it gives shape to not only their beautiful lines but also makes their meaning more accessible.
As I was reading through Ephesians this morning, I was struck by a note I made in the margin a couple of years ago: “Art of Faith.”
These three principles are not only for the practice of artists, but for the life of believers. Indeed, the walk of faith is perhaps the greatest art. We are restored Images, saved by the Word, called to worship in song. We are redeemed works of art and as we “practice” our obedience and gratefulness, we might find in these three simplified principles helpful guidelines for making our lives shine as art that is pure, lovely, and truthful.
In all aspects of our lives, whether or not we would consider ourselves “artistic,” we ought to be thinking as co-creators and, indeed, works of art. Before purchasing, making, doing, or saying anything, we should ask ourselves: is this thing good, useful, quality? Is it beautiful and lovely? Is it true, helpful, and honest?
Imagine how our lives might be transformed if we asked ourselves these questions. I doubt I would own as much clutter. I would likely speak with greater thoughtfulness. I would spend so much less time being frustrated with the repetitiveness of practice– of the everyday– because instead of just going through the motions, I would be considering even the tiniest details of my life in relation to the three greatest ideals: the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.
I am a pianist, but I have long suffered from stage fright. My junior undergraduate piano recital was yesterday and, true to my philosophy that no art is complete without a proper understanding of other art forms, I used literature such as Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to create program notes to give greater depth to the pieces that I played.
As I was writing these notes, I realized: Why not also use literature and this wonderful union of my two arts to ease my stage fright? What if I wrote a story tracing the ideal progression of my recital and pretended that I was an audience member?
So I did. And, to my delight, it helped exponentially! Although I was still incredibly nervous, as soon as I stepped on stage, I was no longer scared little Ryanne, but the Girl in Red that I had seen perform her recital through the eyes of my narrator. It was marvelous! I felt like I had already seen the recital and so was able to imagine I was listening and enjoying the musical and literary journey rather than sitting on stage performing.
Obviously no live performance is perfect, but I felt that by writing this, I was able to play my repertoire more confidently and thus communicate their themes more effectively.
So, my dear musical readers, here is my recital in literary form:
Oh! I should tell you my program as well so this makes more sense:
Piano Sonata No. 17, Op. 31 No. 2 I. Largo-Allegro by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Miroirs II. “Oiseaux Tristes” (“Sad Birds”) by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
Années de pèlerinage II, S. 161 No. 7 Après une Lecture du Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata by Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
So a piece about the storms of life, lonely birds, and Dante’s Inferno. Fun, right?
The Girl in the Red Dress
We came by invitation, to see a girl we know. She’s quite a character…lanky, blonde, eyes that are intense one minute and twinkling with laughter the next, always writing or dreaming of writing, usually stepping in a limping time to a tune nobody else can hear. But she’s anxious. She overworks herself and doubts her work. She is likely trembling backstage now, her hands nearly purple with cold from the frigid hall and her nervous heart. Likely she is pacing and wringing these hands, trying to calm herself and warm them.
I send a quick prayer up past the cracked ceiling of the hall for her. Lord, calm her nerves and let her play with the excellence and emotion with which she has practiced daily.
As I whisper “Amen,” my hands join the chorus of clapping. She has stepped onstage.
But this is someone different. Still her…and yet not. She’s taller. Her arms are stronger. Her lips match her blazing red dress and yet the blue of her eyes flash and burn the brightest. The click of her heels echo through the hall, a measured drumroll for her own performance.
But she looks upward when she looks outward, as if her audience is not below but somewhere beyond the ceiling’s crevices, in the region my prayer just ascended.
The audience scuffles, trying to hush the murmur of their program notes. Program notes…about books, of course. I glance down at them but it’s too dark to read now. To the glow of the stage I return.
The ghost of notes begin; substantial yet ethereal. How? I hardly dare to breathe, unsure whether I really heard them and yet they are resounding gently through the hall. It’s a mist of sound. And then the mist is broken by the steady gallop of a frightened yet determined human tread.
But the mist is back.
And now the running. It’s an uphill run- not fast but intense and ever moving.
And suddenly it’s a battle cry interchanged with a plea. And now a whirlwind. All melting seamlessly into each other.
But the mist comes again, for the adventurer has reached a peak in the mountain range. It is cold, yet clear, colors of sunlight radiating softly through the curtains of mountaintop clouds. Peace descends like a gentle rain, drawing us upward.
Then the battle rages once more, startling and yet not surprising…Did not we feel in our souls the same ever-present struggle of this piece? Beethoven was too knowledgeable. He knew himself- that is, he knew all of us – too well.
Another moment of peace…yet not peace. It’s a cry. The sound of an oboe as the sound of our very hearts. It is a recitative and it is reflective, but it is not weak.
And then a piercing urgency and pain returns, then whirling and, before I knew it, the piece concludes; urgent and yet not rushed. It is reminiscent of intentionally restraining the racing heart. Controlling our steps if we cannot quite control our fears.
Silence falls. I can see the moth-like breath of the girl in red; it flutters, shaky, but soft.
The scene changes. It’s still a mountain’s peak… Grey swirling mist abounds, but the girl in red leads us above it. We are alone. I am alone. She is alone. Everyone is isolated and alone. No man is an island? False. All men are mountaintops calling in vain to each other, wandering birds forever losing their nests.
It is beautiful but sorrowful. Something tugs in my heart at the harmonies, so blended and subdued but for a sudden flurry of frantic wings. And then faded again, as if the great shroud of mist has descended over us all, sealing out loneliness and separating us from the enduring and interconnected nature in which we have no part apart from our lost nests.
This silence is lighter and heavier at the same time. Something is coming. Something terrifying.
And then it does, in a trumpet blast. It is evil. Or no…not evil…something more terrifying than the evil that has become familiar. It is the best good. It is the Good. And I cannot stand to it and thus cannot but think it evil. The mountaintop that seemed a hermitage is opening up as a gaping prison beneath me and I stumble into it with a crying utterance too deep for words.
Is she bringing us into this inferno? Is she the girl I know or some spirit sent to administer justice of the most fearful kind?
The lament continues, more rhythmic than melodic and each note is a beat of my own heart, which is pounding at the walls of my chest in an effort to escape, but my ribs constrain it and it holds its time.
A reaching for higher aid falls back into lament. We have all killed an Albatross in our lives and this is our recompense.
Drum-rolls and rising tides. Shivers of terror more substantial than chains run down my spine and suddenly it is the distant beating of drums as they approach a funeral pyre…my funeral pyre.
But something is changing… the tonality is richer. Something of gold is in the flames of judgement and real gold fears no fire…but who put it there? Can it – this gold – be enough to pay my ransom?
And then in a burst of light made of every color, my soul is bathed in the burning purity of F-sharp major. It peels back my mask of sin and I realize this mask hid not my face but hid me from seeing the face of One too Great for My Sight.
But I can hear Him. Though I may not yet look, I might hear and feel and sense that the Almighty has won a victory. The victory. And I might dare to hope that He shall make me a soldier to share in this victory.
I take to arms within the deepest part of my being and when the trumpets of fearsome judgement sound again, there is something of my own determination in them.
And this determination brings the strength which is grace.
It is beautiful. I am swept into a lulling dance which turns to the song of Him singing over me. The powers of darkness might whirl around, but this song holds me fast, anchoring me.
It gives way to a beautiful dancing flurry which concludes with a declaration of coming victory, if only the judgement first comes.
Drums again. I feel the darkness creeping forth from its pit. It will not be contained, it says. It inches its way toward the hearts of men.
But that Great and Only Goodness is not touched. It’s dignity and perfection reign and the throne is not overthrown by these creeping, oozing things. It’s perfect order and rhythm and timing subdue them with a fear greater than any they could evoke.
And the song sings again, restoring my strength to finish this battle.
And I see it. I see this Light. Distant, but it is coming for me. I tremble yet rush to meet it.
Oh, glorious victory! Surely it is won!
But are those the trumpets of perdition I hear once more? Oh! the dwellers of the pit sneak forth again in chromatic slyness. They dance, the demons do, dance with a syncopation that is too easy to fall into. They crescendo in their final push.
But their frantic, Bacchic celebration of their own undoing is overthrown by the grace and gentleness of a waltz, which crescendos along with them into their end and its everlasting beginning.
The drums return, but no longer accompanying lament. Rather, it is a drumroll toward triumph. And the horns declaring this triumph continue longer than expected, but, after all, are they not to resound throughout all eternity?
I am shaken. Something has been purged from my soul. I barely register my hands applauding. How does one applaud the victory of the Lord?
But then I remember. This is a piano recital. An ordinary girl in a red dress is performing. This is a piano solo, not a divine judgement. But perhaps they are intertwined after all. Perhaps, even more than the Steinway grand, she herself was an instrument of the true Master.
Flowers and bows and the girl in red smiling as if she has won a victory herself, yet blushing and laughing with an innocent, overwhelmed delight at the same time.
More bows. More golden laughter, trilling softly beneath the thunderous applause of her loved ones below.
She winks at a friend, signaling him to stop clapping and waits for others to follow before she invites us to tea and scones.
Tea and scones? After this moral turbulence?
I glance at my watch. It’s only been thirty minutes.
I was inspired this morning as I walked to practice piano for an upcoming recital… this would have been great, had I been inspired to practice. Rather, I was inspired to set the opening of Wordsworth’s The Prelude to music.
My roommate (bless her) stopped me just in time: “Ryanne, if you write a melody and add lyrics, you’ll also want to add harmony and piano. You don’t have time!”
But I felt strongly the annoyance of being unable to create due to the pressures of my ordinary, required pursuits.
I turned twenty on November 14th, 2016. It was weird. Every day I was thinking, “one more week until I am no longer a teenager” or “three more days until I am a real adult.”
But then, when the day came, I felt the same.
This should not have been surprising, but I could not shake the feeling that I should have experienced a grand metamorphosis, shedding the hormonal teen years and entering my twenties as yet another confused college student.
But then I realized: I had never been the typical teenager, so why should I expect to feel like a normal twenty-something?
Teenage girls are expected to be a dramatic, selfish rebels who spend too much time failing at Pinterest-inspired manicures. This is an extreme, to be sure, but still…
While my peers were dating around, I had a single boyfriend who loved Jesus and respected me. My only fights with my parents ended with me telling them that I loved them. I added straps to my senior prom dress while other girls seemed to be competing to see whose dress could cost the most money while using the least amount of fabric.
I broke curfews to study and was only told to turn my music down when I was practicing piano too intensely. While I was nominated for Homecoming court, I was happier serving as Orchestra President (or, as my mom called me, “Queen of the Nerds”). My best friends were theater geeks, music kids, and bookworms, but the cool crowd was so…ordinary.
When the time came to choose a college, I decided on a Christian school with a stellar conservatory and literature program instead of the big name universities that my teachers were pushing.
Of course, I do not mean to say that I did not face normal struggles as a teenager; I definitely did. As a perfectionist, I was always comparing myself to the girls I saw as prettier, my peers who had higher class rankings, and the choir-mates who could sing better. I fought an eating disorder for three years beginning when I was fifteen. I went through random mood swings and said things I wish I hadn’t.
The difference though, is that these trials did not define me. Faith, family, and friends helped me through the teenage tumult and kept me from becoming the self-centered rebel that I otherwise would have been; they supported me through my dangerous perfectionism and loved me for my quirkiness.
In short, while I always “marched to the beat of my own tuba” (as a Dove chocolate wrapper once said), my loving family, growing faith, and amazing friends made sure that I stayed that way.
As my twentieth birthday drew near, I did not have much time for reflection as I was busy leading a chapel at my college and performing in choir concerts. Later, though, I got the chance read through old journals, flip through Facebook albums, and talk to friends and myself (my roommate assured me that talking to oneself is a sign of creativity). As I did so, I realized; I was never really a teenager, so why would I be any different as a twenty-year-old?
I won’t lie; I love Taylor Swift’s song “22.” Maybe it’s just because I am two years younger, but I do not anticipate actually relating to the song’s lyrics. I don’t want to “fall in love with strangers” or “make fun of my exes.” (I will admit that “breakfast at midnight” sounds pretty great because, come on, who doesn’t love breakfast food?) But I guarantee I cannot make myself “forget about deadlines” and I need sleep way too much to stay out all night partying.
I know I probably sound like a grouch, but I just don’t like the idea of feeling “happy, free, confused, and lonely at the same time.” I know what I want to do as a career. I have amazing best friends who share my weirdness and a boyfriend who likes my determination. My faith keeps me strong when I am confused and my family is always there for me. Sure, I have moments of “I can’t do this” and “adulting is the literal worst,” but I am comforted by the fact that I am not alone and nothing compels me to fit the typical 20-year-old mold.
Though I am twenty and thus expected to be tired, broke, and confused (according to the Huffington Post), I refuse to act my age. I will go on working professionally as a pianist as I have since elementary school. I will keep writing poetry and short stories because even though I have to pay taxes and vote, I do not have to stop loving fantasy. I will watch Disney movies and sing along because being a grown-up does not mean I can’t have a sense of childlike wonder. I will chat with my mom about everything because she will always be my best friend, even though new people have come into my life.
When I turned sixteen, I wrote in my journal that I felt simultaneously older and younger than my peers. Now, at twenty, it is the same; I do not feel at all like the stereotypes say.I mean, come on, I play the pipe organ for traditional worship services, but also want to bury myself in a pile of stuffed animals. I am twenty, but feel more ten and thirty than their median.
Okay, so the title of this post is a bit misleading. To clarify, I have not taken lessons in speaking Italian and, if I’m being completely honest, my Italian speaking abilities consists of basic greetings, “grazie”, and apologetically smiling and batting my eyes. Oh, and I got pretty good at ordering coffee and gelato.
Having just returned from a couple weeks in Italy, I figured I would do something similar. However, instead of just travel tips, the following are life lessons which I learned from my time in Italy.
1. Show some gumption.
In one of my stories, a character goes on a trip despite being terrified of airplanes, ruined plans, and -shudder- strangers. The important thing is that she goes anyway. Sound familiar? I have the same fears and, after cancelled flights, nighttime desert drives, lost luggage, and generally dashed expectations, I was on the verge of giving up my adventure and going home. But then I remembered a character by the name of Paige O’Connor. A character I had invented, no less. Oddly enough, I was inspired by my own character to show some gumption and get on the plane. Granted, I got off the plane an hour later when it was cancelled. But still.
2. Sometimes not knowing is good.
I got pretty good at reading Italian menus (I mean, most pasta has Italian names anyway), but sometimes I would just guess and order something at random. It really pays to not be a picky eater. I had the most amazing pasta with mussels because of this. I didn’t even know I liked mussels and probably would not have ordered them had I known that’s what that dish was. But I did and I found a new food I enjoy. Win win!
3. Don’t be half-hearted in anything.
Sure, Italians may not be the most punctual. (I became familiar with the idea of an “Italian 8am” as being somewhere around 8:15 or later.) But I will say that they give their all once they arrive. Every detail in the city where I was was intentional, from the grandest paintings and statues in the Duomo (Cathedral) to the tiniest designs on the top of a cheap cappuccino. Once a barista carried my coffee three feet to my table even though I was more than happy to take it myself because making the coffee was only half of the job.
4. Don’t be typical.
The most embarrassing moments I had were when people knew I was American. It made me feel so obnoxious. But it helped that I was not in the usual tourist hotspots for the majority of my trip. I stayed mainly in Cremona, the most adorable little city I’ve ever seen. Despite being the violin-making capitol of the world, it is off the beaten path and thus has more of the spirit of Italy than commercialized Milan or even Verona. I had a much more enjoyable time learning to live in this unique place than touring in the usual destinations and I think this “road less travelled” philosophy extends to life beyond travel as well.
5. Music is at least 25% setting.
I was in Cremona to study classical music, which was nice, but I loved listening to a street performer play Adele on his violin just as much as the concerts I attended. I’m usually not a fan of pop, but with the bustle of cafes, the sun’s setting light reflecting on the cathedral, and the taste of gelato fresh on my tongue, I enjoyed the slightly-pitchy rendition of Adele just as much as the polished performances I had been listening to all week.
6. Shoes are always a good idea.
Two facts: 1) Italy produces the cutest shoes I have ever seen and 2) Italy is geographically shaped like a boot. Coincidence? I think not. Actually, I’m pretty sure that this is legitimate evidence for Intelligent Design.
7. Absence really does make the heart grow fonder.
I never seem to realize how much I love my family until I’m alone, stressed out, and far away. At this point, even a brief call from my dad or snapchat from my mom (I know, she’s hip) means the world to me. And distance seems to make me only remember only the good things about good old Gilbert, AZ and all who live there. There truly is no place like home…especially when you are away from home.
8. Blessings really do come in disguise.
Before leaving, I said it would be my nightmare to lose my luggage since I hate shopping and had been careful to pack cute hair/makeup stuff. But, alas, when my bag did end up getting lost- and, with it, my cosmetics, hair stuff, and outfits, I had to let this go. And, you know what? I found out a couple magical things: my natural “boho-homeless” hair isn’t bad, a little lipstick goes a long way, and shopping is fun when you can make the airport pay for everything. I might even try to lose my bag again when I head to Rome in a few months!
9. Make your own opportunities.
I found myself slightly bored at times during my time at the music academy (that’s the downside to learning my music in advance I guess), so after wallowing for a bit, I realized that moping would not solve anything and decided to make some new opportunities to keep myself occupied. It ended up being amazing! I met so many wonderful musicians/professors and was given the chance to study composition and even write and premier my own piece! (Check out the link for a video of the first performance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dj8KdhZpWNs)
10. Inspiration is out there!
Maybe my brain was just in a heightened state from all the travel stress. Or maybe it was all the Italian espresso I was drinking. Either way, I could not seem to escape the ideas for poems, stories, and compositions that were thick in the air in Cremona. I had to carry several notebooks with me at once just in case I needed to catch an idea like a Pokemon.
11. Simplicity is beautiful. And delicious.
Italy is without a doubt the land of food. Everything I ate was beyond delicious, but, unlike America, the meals did not need to be supersized to be good. The portions were smaller than here and made with minimal ingredients, but because everything was so fresh and only whole foods were used, the food in Italy was unbeatable. I ate a tomato here in AZ today and it tasted like disappointment in comparison.
12. Why rush and devour? Savor.
I mentioned already the concept of an “Italian 8am,” but it actually is a pretty solid idea. I like schedules and maximizing my use of time, but I learned to take more time to savor things from meals to coffee to commuting during my stay in Cremona. Having to walk everywhere taught me to slow down and enjoy my surroundings, the slow process of dining out taught me to truly taste my food as I ate it, and the tiny coffee sizes forced me to value every sip. As a quick, busy person, this was freeing.
I’m sure I will have to update this post with more lessons as I continue to recover from jet lag and, as such, remember more and more of my trip. For now, though, this will have to work.