10 things that keep a collaborative pianist up at night

  1. Potential page-turning catastrophes
  2. Which all-black outfit should I wear tomorrow?
  3. Devising ways to keep my hands warm
  4. Do I practice too much?
  5. Do I practice too little?
  6. M.130–137 of the second movement of the Franck violin sonata
  7. How can I make more money?
  8. Oh, the pieces I could play with larger hands!
  9. Do I have enough binders? I should buy more binders.
  10. Crippling self-doubt

How we use our time as musicians

Yesterday in class we heard a pianist suffering from tendonitis in both arms perform about six minutes of music — all he would be able to play that day. Afterwards there was a silence as I (and perhaps his classmates) pondered how precious those six minutes were and how we so easily squander our time at the piano and elsewhere. I asked the pianist how he made use of his very brief practice time, and he responded, “I have to plan what I want to accomplish before I play a single note.” Sage advice for any musician, regardless of injury.

*   *   *

I’ve been trying, with moderate success, to attend more concerts this year.  After scheduling my own performances, rehearsals, lessons, and practice time, I’m reluctant to leave the house for yet another event. However, attending concerts is far from superfluous.  As someone whose formal music education ended long ago, I learn the most from listening to other musicians of any level. To be honest, I can’t remember the last time I attended a concert and thought it was a waste of time afterwards.

Notes from vocal masterclasses

© Eileen Huang 2014

Jayne West working with Lawson Daves, with Tim Steele at the piano. Jayne is my teacher, so all my notes from her are filed away in my head — sorry!

I have a lot of notes from masterclasses this summer scribbled here and there — in the margins of programs, the back of sheet music, and even my phone — and thought I’d share them while I organized them. My intent is to share advice that singers can apply broadly, so these notes are not comprehensive nor representative of what each clinician taught during the class.

Kayo Iwama and Alan Smith

Practice tips:

  • Practicing speaking, then singing, each phrase in one long sigh.
  • Practice runs from the end to the beginning, e.g., sing the last 4 notes, then the last 8 notes, then the last 12 notes, etc. That way when you sing the run normally, you are always moving towards something more familiar.
  • Establish a vocal warm-up routine for every performance.


  • Always offer an aria in your native language.
  • Your face is your theater. Keep your hair off your face.
  • Never sing your biggest challenge in an audition. Demonstrate what you can easily do now, and leave the jury wanting to know if there’s more.
  • Present your repertoire list in columns (composer, title, larger work) and sorted by category (opera, song, oratorio, theater).

General good singing:

  • Lead with text, not sound.
  • Breathe with emotion.
  • Be careful with gestures. Don’t mime.
  • Support messa di voce with emotion and thought, so it’s not just an exercise in dynamics.
  • Motivate the idea across rests.

David Kravitz

Five tips for a successful career:

  • Know your music.
  • Take every gig seriously.
  • Be nice to people. Everyone.
  • The recitative is often the first impression you make. Spend as much or more time preparing it as you would the aria.
  • Control what you can, and let go of what you can’t.

Additional advice:

  • Plan how to get out of each gesture, e.g., if you raised your arms, when and how do you put them down.
  • Everyone gets bad reviews. If you want to believe the good reviews, you also have to believe the bad reviews.

James Maddalena

  • Breathing is not phrasing. Breathe where you need to, as long as you maintain the line.
  • Sing the A’ section of a de capo aria as though you’ve experienced something during the B section.

Ryan Turner

  • Use the inflection of words to guide your phrasing.
  • Don’t rush after cadences and periods in recitatives.
  • Think dramatically. Every phrase needs a character.
  • No appoggiaturas on one-syllable words.