Reading for Me

The Books I Have Read…..Just for Me

#2: Moscow Nights (Nigel Cliff)

I have been slothful in putting my thoughts about this wonderful book in writing although I finished it over a week ago. A finalist of the National Book Critics Circle Award for biography, Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story provides an insightful look at the man, the music, and the politics that surrounded the first Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958. Van Cliburn took the world by storm with his Romantic repertoire and Texas charm. He was an overnight sensation, causing an uproar among Russian youth similar to that of Elvis or the Beatles in our country. Moscow Nights follows Cliburn from his Texas roots to his studies at Juilliard and the monumental Tchaikovsky competition before exploring the aftermath of the pianist’s unexpected victory and the notoriety that followed.

Nigel Cliff does an exceptional job of blending biography with political history (of both the US and the USSR) and the music performed. Cliff’s descriptions of Van Cliburn’s performances are mesmerizing and allows the reader to feel as though he is hearing the music first hand. American-Soviet relations are presented in a clear, understandable manner as they influenced the events unfolding on the Russian Conservatory stage. 

Where many biographies tend to portray the individual as a hero, Cliff presents Van as an everyday man with exceptional talent, lots of self-doubt, and noticeable flaws. As I closed the book, I felt as though I knew more about Cliburn and the world in which he lived. In my opinion, that is one of the greatest compliments that can be paid any biography.

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#3: The Practicing Mind (Thomas M. Sterner)

I finished reading this book earlier this month and never got around to writing a blog post about it. Here it is….better late than never, I suppose.

The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life is applicable to all areas of life. With special attention to the study of music and golf, Sterner looks at the steps necessary in “mastering any skill by learning to love the process.” To summarize the book very quickly, Sterner advocates using a DOC approach to practice — Do, Observe, Correct. His emphasis on the observation step and its non-judgmental, non-self-depreciating aspects are extremely valuable to the growing musician.

Written in an anecdotal style, The Practicing Mind is an extremely easy read. Its thought-provoking ideas will challenge the reader in the early stages of the work. As Sterner continues through the book, his prose and ideas become rather repetitive, which I found to diminish the power of the work. (To be fair, the idea of repetition is central to Sterner’s argument and its use in his writing may be intentional. However, the repetition without the addition of new ideas was grating for this reader.)

Will I assign The Practicing Mind to all of my college students? Certainly not. I do think it can be a powerful tool in specific situations and has earned a place on my resource bookshelf.

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#1: Professional Piano Teaching (Jeanine M. Jacobson)

We are ending the third week of 2015 and I am just finishing my first book of the year. I definitely have to get some more reading in or things are not going to be pretty!

I chose to begin the year with Professional Piano Teaching: A Comprehensive Piano Pedagogy Textbook for Teaching Elementary-Level Students now that I have returned to the private teaching studio after a long absence. What I found is that I have good natural instincts as a teacher, but that there are always areas that can be improved. Jacobson’s book was extremely well written and organized in a manner that will make it a resource that I will return to over and over. I especially enjoyed the chapters devoted to teaching technique and musicality to beginning students. The practical tips offered in chapter 11, “The Business of Piano Teaching,” were helpful as I plan for studio growth in the future. All in all, the book challenged me to honestly evaluate my teaching and constantly pursue greater levels of excellence. It was definitely a good place to begin the new year.

For a more detailed analysis of Professional Piano Teaching, watch for the review appearing on my professional blog — Collaborations — on Thursday, January 29, 2015.

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#43: Life Support (Robert Whitlow)

The end of the semester was extremely busy this term and my reading life had to take a back seat. I’m happy to fall back into my routine and share with you the marvelous story by Robert Whitlow.

Life Support is the first of Whitlow’s novels featuring Alexia Lindale, an attorney in South Carolina. Alexia specializes in divorce cases, but finds herself in a new situation with her latest client, Rena Richardson. While on a hike, Rena’s newlywed husband, Baxter, plummets over a cliff to the rocks below. Rena immediately assumes her husband died in the accident; when medical personnel arrive, they discover that Baxter is severely injured and comatose. A legal battle ensues between Rena and her powerful father-in-law over whether or not to terminate life-sustaining medical assistance. The novel thrills with intrigue, deception, and legal twists throughout. As in Whitlow’s other novels, spiritual truths are finely woven into the book’s fabric. I found myself pausing in the midst of my reading to meditate on the insights Whitlow expresses.

As a pianist, I am especially fond of the character of Ted Morgan. Ted is a music minister at the church Alexia has begun attending. A gifted pianist, Ted’s improvisations are musical expressions based on Scripture that give birth to Alexia’s faith journey as well as music therapy to the comatose Baxter. With expressive description, Whitlow vividly captures the connection between music and the holy presence of Almighty God that can only be fully understood through first-hand experience.

Life Support ends with the ultimate cliffhanger that (I hope) will be resolved in the second book of the series, Life Everlasting. I see a trip to the library in my immediate future to continue the story of Rena, Baxter, Alexia, and Ted.

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#39: My Nine Lives – A Memoir of Many Careers in Music (Leon Fleisher)

In addition to determining to learn more about composers, I have also begun to venture into biographies about performers. I was immediately attracted to the memoir of Leon Fleisher because of my personal interest in music related injuries. I was aware of his many years as the left-handed pianist due to focal dystonia and his legendary teaching at the Curtis Institute. I quickly learned that this marvelous musician was a man who epitomizes perseverance and passion for his craft.

I especially enjoyed reading Fleisher’s finely crafted descriptions of performances and lessons. His words made me thirst to hear the sounds that he produced. His insights encouraged me to revisit familiar pieces that hold special places in my heart. I cannot wait to finally hear his legendary recording of the Brahms’ D Minor concerto. I greatly appreciated the author’s open discussions about his various obstacles, failures, fears, and relational difficulties. I suppose we all face the same challenges to some degree; it’s comforting to hear a stellar musician sharing situations with which I can identify. I suppose it gives me hope for overcoming them in my own life as well.

I’m glad I read the memoir. I look forward to listening to Fleisher’s recordings. I trust that I will return to My Nine Lives again in the future.

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#38: Vivaldi: Voice of the Baroque (H.C. Robbins Landon)

I’ve come to accept the fact that I actually know very little about the composers and performers of classical music. During my years of study, most of my attention has been focused on their music rather than the story of their lives. That’s a situation that I can easily correct by reading some biographies…….and this was the first in what I hope will be a long line of such reading.

Before reading Landon’s biography, I knew of Vivaldi as the composer of The Four Seasons and the “Red Priest” who worked tirelessly with the girls of the Pieta. I was surprised to learn about his operatic writing and his questionable relationship with the Giraud sisters. The chapter entitled “Problems in Ferrara” was especially interesting as the biographer detailed the accusations of fornication leveled against Vivaldi and Anna Giraud.

While the book was primarily biographical in nature, the discussions of Vivaldi’s compositions — with special attention given to the operas, sacred compositions, and The Four Seasons — were insightful and well written. I found the book very approachable while being extremely informative.

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#33: The Mastery of Music: Ten Pathways to True Artistry (Barry Green)

Barry Green’s book The Inner Game of Music was one of the best things I read during my graduate work. The Mastery of Music did not let me down either. Green examines characteristics that are important to every musician (and many other professions as well) by examining the performers of specific instruments that exemplify that quality. Who can doubt that a trumpet player epitomizes confidence? Filled with wonderful stories and honest reflection, The Mastery of Music is a book that should be read by every musician.

For a more detailed review of the book from a musical perspective, check out the post on Collaborations on Thursday, July 18, 2013.

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#31: Music in the 18th Century (John Rice)

Obviously this book is not recommended for everyone. A volume in the new Norton History series Western Music in ContextMusic in the 18th Century addresses the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. In an interesting approach, Rice groups music of the era geographically, giving major attention to the cities of Naples, Vienna, and Paris as well as others. A large amount of discussion is given to the historical and political events that shaped the music. A companion anthology is also available for each volume in the series.

I found Rice’s text to be extremely readable while maintaining its scholarly status. However, I did find the use of theoretical terms developed by Robert Gjerdingen (2007) to be unnecessarily confusing to the text. I found it humorous that Rice defends his inclusion of the material with the following statement:  “Readers need to keep in mind, however, that this terminology and the theory on which it rests are quite new and their usefulness still subject to debate.” (p. 35) That red-flag statement seemed to say, “I’m not sure there’s any validity to this discussion, but I’m going to include it to show how smart I am.” When Rice strictly spoke from a historical and musical point of view, the text was strong and filled with lots of insightful commentary; the theoretical discussions should have been avoided in the present text.

I look forward to reading the remaining volumes in the series that is edited by Walter Frisch. I’ll just need a little time to recover before diving into Joseph Auner’s Music of the 20th and 21st Centuries. A more thoroughly review of the present volume will appear on my professional blog, Collaborations, on Thursday, July 11, 2013.

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#23: Wagner: A Case History (Martin van Amerongen)

Having time to read has been a precious commodity of late. When I visited friends in southern California earlier this month, I took the time to finish a book that I had been reading. I wish I could tell you it was a great novel that was relaxing and purely for pleasure. Sadly that is not the case.

A few years ago, I wandered into a used book store and found the book about Richard Wagner. Love him or hate him, you have to admit that the man’s life and legacy is fascinating. I hadn’t seen the book before and the price was right, so I decided to take a chance and make the purchase. The book found a comfortable home on a shelf; I looked at it each time I needed a new book to read. Something else always grabbed my attention.

I finally got around to reading the book. And I’m no better for having read it. This work was truly a waste of my time. Why did I keep reading? That’s what I keep asking myself. I have a general rule that gives myself permission to put down a book at any point in the reading process. I refuse to put the pressure on myself to finish a book simply because I’m close to the end. I DO finish books for that reason from time to time, but it’s not something that is hard and fast in my mind. I kept reading in the hopes that I would stumble upon some nugget of information that would enlighten me in some way or that I might be able to use in a classroom lecture in the future. Nothing came of it.

Now that I’ve posted about READING the book, I’ll return it to its comfortable home on my shelf until something vies for that space. I don’t envision pulling this work off the shelf again in this lifetime.

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