by Cathy Smetana
I am, first and foremost, a teacher. I do not have a church job, or play for weddings, or do a lot of accompanying. I do not currently have a significant other with whom to share expenses and chores; in spite of my best efforts, my cat Pablo simply blinks imperiously at me when I suggest he could use his big fluffy tail to help with the dusting. I love to teach, and teaching pays the bills, so . . . I teach. A lot. Six days a week during the school year and four-to-five days in the summer, until the middle of August, forty-plus private students, the occasional group class, and as many as four summer camps.
Are you tired yet? I am. I love what I do and can’t imagine doing anything else, but I can easily imagine doing less of it. A lot of things fall away on a schedule like this – important things like a social life, the freedom to take time off that isn’t a major holiday, and the ability to keep up with friends who work more “normal” hours. Unfortunately, personal hobbies and artistic development often take a back seat too.
Because I love teaching, my closest friends are excellent teachers, and I work in an environment that values excellence in teaching, I’m always very active in professional development activities that directly impact my students. In a typical year I attend (and present at) monthly teacher meetings put on by the Association of Professional Piano Instructors (APPI). I also hold leadership positions at MacPhail and within APPI; attend and/or lead MacPhail professional development sessions; take a few online seminars; listen to podcasts about teaching; read books about teaching; watch masterclasses on YouTube; and biennially attend the National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy.
But . . . for about 10 years, I barely practiced myself. At first I didn’t even miss it. Then suddenly I did, and it was time to do something about it.
The first sign of my creative renaissance was my desire to buy a decent piano for my home. Because I have two grand pianos in my office at MacPhail, I always told myself I could go practice there. The problem was, I didn’t. The Casio Privia digital piano I had at home “for emergencies” certainly didn’t inspire me to practice. So, in February 2016, on an almost-whim, I bought a Kawai CN-35 digital piano. I have never regretted this purchase! It sounds wonderful and feels fantastic to play. If you think that digital pianos are worthless, I encourage you to go play the new Kawai digitals; I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised! Suddenly, I went from not practicing at all to consistently practicing a few hours a week.
With my enthusiasm for playing rekindled, I started to fantasize about going on a retreat – a piano camp for grownups. I used to teach at such a camp in Vermont, but I didn’t want to go there as a student – that just seemed too weird. I Googled “piano camps for adults” and found Rocky Ridge Adult Piano Seminar in Estes Park, Colorado. It sounded perfect: five days in the mountains, sleeping and practicing in rustic cabins, food provided, no need for a car, just me and the mountains and pianos. Two lessons, daily masterclasses, and a recital. All solo repertoire; I didn’t want to play duets or chamber music. I have always loved the solo piano literature and wanted to play what I wanted to play. I applied for (and received) a James E. Ericksen Grant from MacPhail which covered the costs of the camp, so I didn’t even need to worry about money; I just got to show up and soak it all in like a very thirsty sponge.
The experience was everything I hoped it would be and more. A typical day at Rocky Ridge would see me waking up around 6:00 am (the beds were comfortable enough to sleep in, but not comfortable enough to lounge in). With no commitments or responsibilities, I’d be in the practice room by 6:30 am so I could practice before breakfast at 8:00. Then there was more practice time until a masterclass at 11:00 am. The faculty (Sergio Gallo from Georgia State University and Lori Sims from Western Michigan University) were supportive, kind, and very good. The other students were warm, intelligent, and passionate about music. While they were not professional musicians, they played at a high level; I heard Rachmaninoff Preludes, Beethoven Sonatas, Brahms Intermezzos, Debussy Preludes, and Chopin Preludes. After lunch there was time for more practicing and lessons, and I usually took an hour to hike around the beautiful mountainside campus. Happy hour was at 5:30, followed by dinner at 6:00 and an informal lecture/performance at 8:00. Once it got dark, we all headed to our cabins to sleep. I was terrified for my first lesson with Sergio; I hadn’t had a lesson in 20 years! But it ended up being an invigorating creative exchange which helped shed new light on pieces I’d been playing for a while. By the end of camp, I’d made new friends and regained a lot of confidence in my playing.
After the camp I wrote a thank-you email to my teacher Sergio. He wrote back, “Dear Cathy, We were all so impressed by your beautiful playing, and warm personality: your students are lucky! I am happy to hear that you feel rejuvenated and already started on your new pieces. Please let me know if you need to exchange ideas anytime soon, I am always happy to help!” This email is printed out, laminated, and hanging on a bulletin board by my computer in my office. I see it every day. Pictures of Rocky Ridge are printed out, collage-style, and are posted both on my office door and in the front of the 3-ring binder full of music I want to learn.
Feeling more confident about my playing than I have in years, it was easy to say “let’s do it!” when Sue Ruby asked Jeremy Hanson and me if we would play a recital for the Fridays in the Valley chamber music series. While it’s true that learning this repertoire is cutting into my solo repertoire practice time, it is so wonderful to play this delightful music with a musician like Jeremy! Please come hear us on February 9, 2018 at 7:00 pm at Valley Community Presbyterian Church in Golden Valley – we’re playing selections from Bach’s Orchestral Suites arranged for piano/four hands; Mozart’s Sonata in D, K. 381; Schubert’s F Minor Fantasy, op. 103; and Ravel’s Ma Mere l’Oye. The concert is free – invite your students, too!
Feeling like an artist again has changed my teaching as well. I have more energy . . . more attention to detail . . . and both more patience with the process and less tolerance for excuses. Based on my own increased practice time and some of Noa Kageyama’s work, I’ve written new practice guidelines for my students, including ideas for keeping a practice journal. I am not “making” them keep a practice journal, but I do expect them to come up with concrete goals and a plan for achieving those goals.
I can’t wait to go back to Rocky Ridge. I hope to stay for the 10-day version of the camp this time. I’d love to sign up for regular lessons with a teacher in Minneapolis, but I can’t realistically fit a consistent lesson time into my schedule. Four lessons and two masterclasses at Rocky Ridge is the perfect alternative. It’s also great to have a solo performance opportunity that is away from MacPhail; at Rocky Ridge I’m not a faculty member, I’m just another student – so I’m more likely to take a chance performing a new piece or playing by memory than I would at a recital here.
I have to admit: I don’t want a lot of people from Minnesota to join me at Rocky Ridge . . . I really like feeling that it’s “away” from all the work I do here! But I do hope you’ll find something to refresh and continue to develop your own artistry at your instrument. There are so many great options these days!