Monday, June 23, 2014

Selling my Violin


I am selling my wonderful Italian violin (1953).  The label says Salvatore Sandro Orlando Catania.  It is a full size violin and has had some excellent adjustments on it by the staff of Mr. Tom Wilder's shop of Montréal.

I am also selling my bow which was made by François Malo (early 2000s) which is silver-mounted.  It was made in Montréal, Québec.

Violin, asking $6000 or best offer.
Bow, asking $3800 or best offer.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

An open letter to my students.

To my dear beloved Grade 4 students,

Representation of Danse Infernale from Stravinsky's Firebird

I am grateful for your hearts that forgive, reconcile, and continue to love.  You are an example to me of how this world should really operate.

I am grateful for your minds that are curious, open, and desire to learn. You inspire me to engage with the world around me and learn new things each day.

I am grateful for your smiles and laughter.  They are the purest form of joy and warm my heart each day.

I am grateful for your voices.  They sing beautifully, they speak truth, and they comfort others when they are in need of encouragement.  Thank you for showing me how to use one's voice to help others.

I never imagined that the year would end this way, our time together cut short.  Never forget that you each have inside of you, the power to call upon a Firebird.  You have shown me grace, compassion, and kindness that I can never repay.  You will never be forgotten.  Please believe that, as in the Firebird, good defeats evil.  Light outshines darkness.  You are precious.


Mme. West

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

How to "Handel" Piano Problems

One of my final Royal Conservatory of Music piano technique exams is in 23 hours. I have been preparing for this exam since I was 9 years old - essentially. My serious preparation began in May 2013.  Here we are, the night before exam time and all through my mind anxious thoughts are running - not a shred of confidence to be found.

This is not uncommon for musicians to experience nerves or anxiety before an audition, performance, or jury.  Earlier this week, I had emailed my phenomenal piano teacher and asked her for tips on how to best spend my preparation time in the last 48 hours before the exam. Her response was brilliant.  I want to share it because it offers a great formula for dealing with high pressure performance situations.  It may serve as a warm reminder to seasoned musicians or as welcome brand new information for musicians just beginning to have these more intense performance experiences.

I will not paraphrase what she wrote or make any corrections. Here it is:

"Make sure you have some energy for exam. It is better not to overplay and completely wear yourself out. The night before you better not play much but rather concentrate in your mind and remember everything what supposed to be at exam.  Should be equal time to practise slowly and fast on scales and studies."
Please, dear reader, permit me to expand on some of her points and how they have helped me manage the pre-exam meltdown that I was facing.  

1) Energy - That means SLEEP.  Did you hear me? SLEEP.  I don't think you heard me...SLEEP.  Staying up to late to practise will not serve your memory or emotional state well at this point.  With only 48 hours left, the music is either in your fingers, muscles, memory, and heart or it isn't.  No turning back.  Nearly as important as sleep is the type of food you are eating.  Make wise choices before the performance.   We all know that post-performance dinners are a deluxe treat anyway!

2) To Practise or NOT to practise: Over-practising before a performance can lead to fatigue, muscle strain, and frustration.   My teacher was clear in her warning that overdoing it could wear me out mentally, emotionally, and physically.  That being said, I have always told my piano students that their performance, exam, or audition should NOT be the first time that they are touching their instrument that day.  Tomorrow, for my exam, I intend to play through some scales at lunch - that's it.

3) Score study: Mental preparation the night before is equally as valuable as physically playing your instrument.  Considering that my technique exam has a huge number of distinct elements, it is a worthwhile use of my time to look over the requirements and be totally familiar with the tempi required.  Moreover, the concert études that I will be playing do not require memorization.  Therefore, I should be doing some score study tonight.

4) Change up the tempo: My piano teacher's final tip is very important.  Slow practice until the bitter end is ALWAYS valuable.  It always has been and always will be.  Practising at your performance tempo can reveal where you might still have small struggles and will perhaps give you the confidence that you are indeed ready to perform at that higher speed.

The four most important words in my piano teacher's email were: "concentrate in your mind."  What does this mean practically? Well, to put it bluntly - it means attempting to put all emotional and mental distractions aside for the time being.   This is why musicians are often required to become detached on or near concert day.  The amount of mental focus that is required to get through an exam or recital is staggering.  My teacher's advice is basically to keep life simple for the time leading up to the performance.  Keeping external distractions to a minimum is difficult but at some point becomes necessary for completing a successful performance.

So, what will I do with 23 hours remaining until exam time?  I will play piano for about an hour, ensure that all of the food I eat is healthy, go for an easy run to clear my mind, and sleep.  Tomorrow, I will keep a low profile in terms of socializing and surround myself with calming influences.  Finally, I will trust the preparation that I have done.  I will know that I have worked hard and will represent myself and my teacher well tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

To build up or the break apart

I have the unique position of being both a piano student and a piano teacher.  This gives me an opportunity to view music lessons from two different perspectives.  Each of these roles informs the other.  My experiences as a student inform how I treat my students.  Also, my experiences as a piano teacher mean that I understand what teachers expect from their students.

Within the last two months, I've started taking additional piano lessons with a wonderful woman who teaches from her home.  At my first lesson, before we began, she gave me fresh soup, bread, and cheese so that I could warm up before the lesson.  I was overwhelmed by this kindness.  She always gives extra time and never raises her voice.  Yesterday, however, I did not receive a lot of positive feedback at my lesson and I felt deflated.  I have truly been practising more than I ever have in my life.  I know my musical and technical weaknesses and face them alone in the practice room every day.  When I arrived at home, the last thing I wanted to do was go back downtown to the conservatory and practise.  I felt as if no amount of practising could save me.

Let me be fair to my teacher. She is an incredibly caring woman who truly is concerned about my personal and musical life.  She is generous with her time and knowledge.  Nonetheless, yesterday's lesson raised some questions in my head:

  • Are we too "soft" on students in order to keep them interested in music? If so, is that such a bad thing?
  • While we should never lie to students about their quality of their playing, should we always have something positive to say about how they performed?
  • How do we build a relationship with the student to the point at which they know that we treasure them and they can trust that we still care about them as a human being when we give them difficult feedback musically or technically?
  • How do we not destroy the student's motivation but at the same time remain completely honest about their progress?
Admittedly, I'm a sensitive individual.  And really, who wants to hear that they are not playing their best after hours of practice?  However, I see the value in my teacher's approach.  She does not want me to be under any illusions about my playing and maybe when I'm less sensitive, I will appreciate her honesty.  Maybe more North American teachers should be like this. I really don't know the answer.

I do know one thing. Music is about sharing the deepest, most hidden parts of one heart.   We are absolutely required to be vulnerable when we play - even in lessons.  That is what all music teachers must keep in mind.  We must be grateful when our students share their hearts with us.  

Speaking of sharing your heart, here's some Tchaikovsky - in recital.

Monday, January 20, 2014

In Memorium: Claudio Abbado (1933-2014)

My phone buzzed in the middle of the night and I was awoken.  Unwisely, I checked my phone.  I noticed that social media had been flooded with deeply saddening news:
Maestro Claudio Abbado (1933-2014)

Maestro Claudio Abbado was no more. He had succumb to his long battle with cancer.  

I am so grateful to have his unsurpassed recordings as a testament to his musicality.  His interpretations have always been so authentic and filled with love and joy.

It is with sadness but gratitude that I share some of my favourites with you today:

You will not find a Brandeburg set which contains such a fresh and honest approach to these great works. The playing is superb and Abbado's direction is gentle and intelligent.  These have become a staple in my listening: (

From Mozart's transcendent Requiem Mass in d minor, Abbado's surreal conducting a few years ago at the Lucerne Festival still touches the core of the soul.  One is left breathless by the gentleness of Abbado's direction: (

Here is another moment in which Abbado's heart, spirit, and intelligence came together to preserve a moment of beauty and silence at the end of Mozart's Requiem in the same performance in Lucerne. (

Finally, one can not help but be crushed by his legendary performance of Brahms Second Piano Concert with fellow Italian Maurizio Pollini at the keyboard.  These forty minutes of music have changed my life and the humanity of this performance has left a deep impact on me.  Dear reader and listener, I invite you to appreciate these recordings: (

Rest in peace Maestro Abbado.  Your approach to music and your humility to present what the composer left in the score are an inspiration to us all.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Magic of the Firebird.

Stravinsky's Firebird: Child-Approved!
I am beyond fortunate  to teach a class of students who are so open-minded and willing to journey with me on various learning activities.  When I proposed to them that we would be studying Stravinsky's The Firebird (or Oiseau de Feu en français) they were not initially sure what to think.  I gave them a bit of background to the story.   As we started to study this story both in English and French, I could see the students' imaginations ignite.  Although a few of the boys were not keen on the romance between Prince Ivan and Princess Tsarevna, they were soon enthralled by the antics of the evil Kotchei and his monsters!  

At the end of the story, all of the children applauded.  After all, who doesn't love a story in which light overcomes darkness.  It was truly magical to study this colourful Russian folktale with my class and to introduce them to the brilliant music that Stravinsky wrote to accompany it.
It was risky to choose this story for North American students who would prefer to talk about hockey and video games.  At points, there was some resistance, but their art, in reaction to the story, illustrates that when given the chance - children's imaginations DO respond to beautiful music and beautiful stories that are outside of their cultural paradigm.  Take a risk in your teaching!


Monday, November 11, 2013

In Memorium: Remembrances in Grade 4

Each year, our school has an assembly about Remembrance Day.  We teach the children to pause on the 11th of November to recall the sacrifices that soldiers have made in the name of peace and justice around the world.  We recall that many men and women have made the ultimate sacrifice and offered up their lives.

Fortunately, my entire class of Grade 4 students have grown up in peace in their nation of Canada.  For the most part, war and armed conflict are quite far from their consciousness.  I had the opportunity to share with them how war has personally touched my life. 

The wreath that my students in memory of my friend. They wanted me to write the plaque.

On December 31st, 2009 (my birthday), I awoke to terrible news.  Four Canadian soldiers and a journalist had been killed by a roadside explosive that hit their armoured vehicle in Afghanistan.   At first, I was simply saddened by the news but continued about my day.  An hour later, the CBC Radio news announced the names of those killed.  The second name was my friend, Sgt. George Miok.  I was shocked.  How could one of the names that so often appear on the news be my friend from Hungarian Folk Dance group and classmate from the University of Alberta?  War had now personally touched me - deeply. This was no longer the typical six degrees of separation.  Eventually, I would see my friend's casket carried along the highway of heroes in Ontario and see his tearful mother bury her son.  It was agonizing.

Since 2009, I have shared Sgt. Miok's story with my class each year.  Each year the class listens reflectively and with the utmost respect.  This year, however, my class's response touched me so deeply.  Without prompting, a small group of boys in the class, after completing their part of the wreath, started writing letters to Sgt. Miok - to thank him for his sacrifice to rebuilding a war-torn country.  Before I knew it, the entire class had begun to write George a personalized letter.  I had not asked them to do this. This was of their own volition which made this loving act all the more amazing.

The students eventually asked me to print out Sgt. Miok's picture so they could attach it to the letter.

 Here is another example of a letter that was written.

The most touching part came at the end of the day.  I was seated at my desk as the bell rang and was packing up my belongings.  At that point, three boys in the class approached me and handed me an envelope.  When I opened up, the tears I had tried to contain could not help but escape.

The heart of my students was truly displayed on this day that we took to remember.  Their empathy for how I felt losing a kind friend was demonstrated by acts of kindness.  I am thankful that George's courage and sacrifice continues to inspire future generations of leaders and helps them to pause and remember on the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month.

George, you will never be forgotten nor will your bravery and selflessness.  Rest in His peace and light.