Monday, March 05, 2012

Lecture Recital for Kingsway Women's Club

A few weeks ago, I gave a lecture recital for the Kingsway Women's Club in Toronto. Many people have asked for a script of the lecture, so here it is.


(Play Faure Impromptu No. 2, Op. 31)

That was the Impromptu No. 2 written by Gabriel Faure in 1883. All told, it took approximately 10 hours to prepare that piece for performance today, over half of which was spent practicing slowly with the metronome.

Most people don't understand the hours of hard work that go into the making of a musician. One often hears about musicians having "God-given talent", but the reality is that if you want to learn an instrument and be able to play it at any level of expertise, you'll need to practice daily. Those musicians who are able to develop their playing to an advanced level have spent years of practicing their instrument. Therefore, it is no surprise to learn that many musicians consider their instrument a part of them.

Good afternoon, my name is Chris Foley and I'm a pianist, educator, and writer. A large part of what I do is think of interesting ways to convince people of the value of music as way to improve one's cultural education, learning processes, brain function, emotional well-being, and eventual path to success.

Before I go on about the things that I currently do, I'd like to talk a bit about how I got here.

Although I was born in Toronto, I grew up in North Delta, a suburb south-east of Vancouver. When I was younger, I played the piano, viola, and flute, wrote adolescent compositions, and knew I wanted to go into music, but didn't have a clear idea of exactly what I wanted to do.

When I was given the opportunity in Grade 11 to play piano for the musicals in my high school, I naturally jumped at the chance. Working in the theatre was one of my first truly fun and exhilarating musical experiences, and proved to be a miraculous cure for the stage fright that had plagued me up to that point.

When I entered the University of British Columbia, I majored in composition for the first year. I hated it. I intensely disliked the process of writing music, although paradoxically, I developed a lifelong love and passion for contemporary music which continues to this day. I switched to a piano concentration in my second year partially to work with singers, and partially to play contemporary music.

After my years at UBC, I went to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, where I majored in Piano Accompanying and Chamber Music. I spent five years studying with Jean Barr, a wonderful and brilliant teacher and mentor, who has taught me so much about music, careers, and life.

After five years in graduate school at Eastman, I graduated with a Doctor of Musical Arts degree and was unleashed upon the musical world. I chose to work in Vancouver, where I became a faculty member of both the Vancouver Academy of Music and the University of British Columbia.

But the organization that provided me with some of the best musical opportunities was Vancouver New Music, and I was a member of their ensemble for six years. In the Vancouver New Music Ensemble, I played over a hundred contemporary works, many of them Candian compositions receiving their first performance. The works I played ranged from masterpieces to works that were best termed forgettable. But in the process, I chanced upon a large number of works that I would never have discovered otherwise.

The next piece I would like to play for you is the first of four Nigerian Dances by Joshua Uzoigwe, a composer who spent most of his professional life in Nigeria. I played the Canadian premiere of this piece in a March 2000 Vancouver New Music concert entitled The Wanderer: Chamber Music of Africa.

(Play Nigerian Dance #1)

It was in Vancouver that I also met Wendy Hatala, the woman whom I met in 1994 married four years later. After eight years in Vancouver, we grew restless, and realized that the professional advancement that we craved could not be found in Vancouver. And so in 2002, Wendy and I moved to Toronto, specifically Oakville, where we have lived ever since.

The move to Toronto proved most profitable, as soon after we moved here, I was hired by Tapestry New Opera Works to rehearse and perform in productions of new operatic works. A year later, I was hired by the Royal Conservatory of Music to coach singers both in the Glenn Gould School and the Community School (now renamed the Conservatory School).

Does everybody know what the Royal Conservatory of Music is? Founded in 1886, the Royal Conservatory now encompasses a huge variety of musical activities. The Royal Conservatory houses not one, but two schools: The Glenn Gould School, which is a professional program for first-rate students wishing to make music a career, and the Conservatory School, which provides musical instruction for a much wider range of students of every ability and musical style. RCM Examinations is a program which sets and supports musical standards across Canada and the United States. Did you know that RCM Examinations and Carnegie Hall recently began a partnership to hold examinations across the United States? This is called The Achievement Program, and is expanding extremely rapidly. Frederick Harris Music is the publishing arm of the organization, and many of the books from the RCM curriculum you see music students carrying around are published by Frederick Harris.

In addition, Learning Through the Arts is an educational program that aims to give public school teachers the tools to put an arts-driven curriculum at the core of their educational activities.

In 1991, the Royal Conservatory initiated an ambitious plan to renovate their property at 273 Bloor, eventually becoming the Telus Centre for the Performing Arts, featuring one of the greatest mid-size concert halls in the world today, Koerner Hall. Through the Performing Arts Division, the RCM is now one of Toronto's premier performance, convention, and wedding venues.

It was at the Royal Conservatory that my career both advanced and branched out. Although many people found the growth pains of 2004-2008 a difficult time at the Conservatory, I thrived. In 2005, I was recruited by then-head of the Keyboard Department Karen Quinton to teach piano. I proposed and taught a Collaborative Piano class for advanced pianists. I was also asked to serve on the Executive of the RCM Faculty Association, where I now serve as the organization's Treasurer. Pete Zarins recruited me to become an examiner for RCM Examinations. In fact, much of my musical development in the last 10 years has been shaped by my experiences and growth at the Royal Conservatory.

These days, one of the recurring themes throughout my musical work is the importance of technology and how we can utilize it as performers, students, and teachers of music. In 2005, I started the Collaborative Piano Blog, which has gone on to become the top classical music blog in Canada, and one of the top piano blogs in the world. Writing a well-known blog has opened up a world of opportunities and has resulted in many doors opening for me in the last few years.

I also think a lot about how I can use technology in the teaching studio. Most of my students spend their days glued to their smartphones (get out phone). A few years ago I realized that the musical activities that I was promoting were often in direct competition with the hours that my students were spending with their electronic devices. I came to an important resolution: rather than fight the march of progress, I needed to find ways to help bring electronic devices into a student's daily musical life rather than compete with it.

One of the easiest ways to do this is with something familiar to all those who have studied music - lesson notes. At every lesson, a teacher needs to write lesson notes for their students so they and their parents will know what the week's assignments and expectations are. Why not deliver the lesson notes to the students directly to them on their cellphones? The answer was very simple - email students and their parents their lesson notes every week. This simple solution has helped my students keep in touch with my expectations, practice daily, AND spend time with their smartphone.

There are other neat solutions as well. (demonstrate metronome on the iPad). The simple metronome, which terrorized so many of us in our early years, can now be cheaply downloaded onto any phone or tablet device. And that's not all you can do with technology.

(Get audience member to try out drum kit on GarageBand with iPad)

I will now perform Debussy's Clair de Lune, reading the music on my iPad using a program called forScore.

(Play Clair de lune)

How many of you have taken exams with the Royal Conservatory? (show of hands)

Do you remember the fear you experienced when walking into the examination room? As an examiner, it's my job to understand that fear and put musicians at ease as they begin their exams. You might be interested to know that I examine many adult beginners, and adults are much more scared than children when playing exams. One of my intermediate students started piano when she was 68 years old. When she played her Grade 1 exam a year and a half later, she had never experienced such terror as the first moments of her exam, even though she had meticulously prepared all of ther pieces, studies, and scales. Fortunately, the examiner was very kind and put her at ease immediately.

I travel a lot as an examiner. In the last few years, I've been to Vancouver, North Vancouver, Richmond, Edmonton, Calgary, Lethbridge, London, Sarnia, Etobicoke, Mississauga, Toronto East, and Hamilton in Canada and Boston, central New Jersey, upstate New York, Cinncinnati, and Huntsville, Alabama in the United States.

I hear a wide variety of playing from many young pianists. A large part of my job is to listen to a performance, comment on it, and give it a mark according to the standards of RCM Examinations. One of the most amazing things about RCM Exams is the uniformity of musical standards that their corps of examiners are trained to recognize. I can tell you with a great deal of confidence that a performance receiving a mark of 85 in downtown Toronto will be of the same standard as a performance receiving a mark of 85 in Alabama or the Yukon.

I want to give you an idea of what it's like to be an examiner, and how one is able to listen to a performance and be able to discern what its standard is and why. I'm going to play Petzold's Minuet in G major from the Grade 3 Repertoire Book at 4 different standards, and I want you to listen to these performances as if you were an examiner who had to assess them. The first performance of this piece is a dreadful performance that would certainly receive a failing grade.

(Play dreadful, failing performance of Minuet in G)

Mercifully, I didn't make it to the end of the piece.

Next I would like to play a performance of the same piece at an Honors Level. The notes are more clearly learned and the piece has its moments, but the tempo is a little slow and inconsistent, and the ornaments are disrupting the flow of the piece. In addition, the balance needs a bit of work.

(Play mid-70's performance of Minuet in G)

Now I would like to play a performance of the same piece at a First Class Honors Level. The tempo is much more consistent and the ornaments are working well, but there could still be more dynamic contrast between phrases. Nevertheless, this would be a pretty well prepared performance.

(Play mid-80's performance of Minuet in G)

Finally, here is a performance that would receive a mark well over 90, at the First Class Honors with Distinction level. The phrases are nicely contrasted, and there is a sense of lift with the articulations that adds much humor and nuance throughout. In addition, there is that difficult-to-pin-down element called artistry that genuinely makes a performance come alive.

(Play mid-90's performance of Minuet in G)

But the main satisfaction I get from examining is from observing personal triumphs, helping to create positive musical experiences, and pointing out areas where students are excelling, but perhaps unaware of. In Ontario last summer, I was midway through the afternoon examining a young student whose Grade 7 piano exam thus far was average, but not terribly compelling. And then she played Stephen Chatman's Katherine with such beauty, such refinement that I had never, ever heard in a student performance of that piece before.

(Play Katherine by Stephen Chatman)

I was moved to tears by this young pianist's playing. In addition to giving her a perfect mark for the piece, it was my duty as an educator to write in her examination report that this was an absolutely first-rate performance of the piece and she should by all means continue learning more Canadian piano works if she was able to play them at such an astonishing standard. I hope I hear her again one day.

Last month in Alberta, I examined a boy with Asperger's Syndrome, a variety of autism which manifests itself as difficulty in understanding social interaction. This student had had problems in exams before because he allegedly couldn't focus in an exam situation. Since I had recently been teaching autistic students at the Royal Conservatory, I knew just a little about how they function. Children with Asperger's sometimes tend to be a bit verbose, but can be learners and thinkers in ways that we don't usually suspect. It has often been pointed out that many of the world's ground-breaking scientific breakthroughs were accomplished by people with autism.

Knowing this, when the student entered the examination room (the sanctuary of a large church in downtown Lethbridge), I immediately started talking to him about the architectural details of the room in a rapid, clipped manner. Leading him to the piano, we excitedly discussed some characteristics of churches and pianos. Upon reaching the piano, he exclaimed "I have to go to the bathroom!" and left the room. Two minutes later he returned and played a truly exceptional exam with a high level of stylistic awareness rare for a pianist of his age. I don't like to boast, but I would like to think that my very small knowledge of autism helped me to create conditions where this young man could finally excel in a competitive situation and use that positive experience to bolster his future work.

After two weeks examining in Alberta last month, I flew back to Toronto, where I lead a busy life these days. Next week I'm playing piano in the orchestra for Fern Hill School's production of The Music Man, featuring students enrolled in Grades 5 through 8. In March Wendy and I (and our two daughters) will be moving into a new house in Oakville, where I'll finally have a much larger studio space with a 12-foot ceiling. In April, I'll be adjudicating senior piano classes at the Davenport Music Festival right here in Etobicoke. My examining routes should be interesting this spring, as I'm flying out to Halifax in mid-April, followed by a trip to northern Alberta and British Columbia in June, with stops in Grimsby, Grande Prairie, and Dawson Creek. I'll be rounding out the season as an adjudicator for the Ontario Registered Music Teacher's Association Provincial Convention in Burlington.

With all these busy professional commitments, people often ask me "What do you play for fun?" For the last 10 years, I've been developing an interest in playing ragtime piano music and it is with this style that I'll finish up this afternoon. This is the New Era Rag by American composer James Scott. Thank you for your attention, and have a wonderful afternoon.

(Play New Era Rag)

(Question and answer session)


  1. Anonymous6:27 PM

    This is intriguing but impossible to fully comprehend without the musical examples. Video? Audio?

  2. Nope. It wasn't recorded. You'll just have to imagine the performances. I hope to do the program and talk again, this time with cameras rolling.

  3. Anonymous8:00 AM

    Very illuminating, thanks for sharing. But I have to ask -- only 10 hours? Did you already know the piece and only needed a brush-up for this performance? As a serious amateur (ARCT performer's diploma), I think it would still take me a good 40-50 hrs or so to get this learned, memorized and polished for performance. Does this time decrease significantly as one gets more experience? How often do you find yourself needing to learn a completely new piece from scratch these days?

  4. I think it's great that you also played some ragtime at your lecture Chris. Sounds like fun :)

  5. Wish I lived close enough to attend lectures like this! Thanks for telling about the boy with Asperger's. My son has a bit of it and it's a new way of thinking! Thanks for this script! Maybe you'll make it to Idaho one day.

  6. I agree. They are very different animals. Having spent years basically sight-reading for a living, I neglected improvement on my ability to memorize. That, combined with age, has made it more difficult now than it ever was. Without the immediate need to memorize, I just don't. As for piano teachers, I just adding yourself to Conoco Piano Lamps new Piano Instructor's directory by filling the form here so prospective students can find you.