Interview with Anne Ku

Anne Ku on Maui

Anne Ku on Maui

You’ve described life as “a big playground to learn and have fun.” Can you tell us a little more? Have you always had this philosophy or is it something you realized as you got older?

One of my favorite songs is Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”  — I have to remember that when I’m not enjoying myself. If it’s no longer fun, then it’s time to move on. We’re here to learn. As long as we’re learning, we’re growing. And life is the playground where we can play, experiment, make mistakes, learn and grow. This is something I’ve realized as I got older. When I was younger, I thought of life as full of new experiences to be had, but work was a big component of that. Work — defined as activity where you get compensated. Life can be defined by experiences and lessons learned. Dalai Lama’s observation of the way we separate work and play made me want to equate work with play. When I became a musician, turning my hobby into my profession, I no longer separated the two. And so, life = work = play.  Right now, in an academic environment, I’m learning as I teach.

Tell us a little bit about your life’s journey so far.

When asked “what do you want to be when you grow up,” I answered “a fairy.”  Now that may sound corny, but I think I actually fulfilled my wish. A fairy can change if she wants to. I’ve changed jobs and self-definition as many times as I’ve relocated. I have an insatiable appetite for what is new and different. I thrive on diversity. I’m very curious. I love to investigate. There was never a grand plan. Each relocation had a legitimate reason. I’ve often wondered if my life has been one of falsification. That is, to do something long enough to stop when I realize I either don’t like it or don’t want to do it. This could be due to boredom or feeling incompetent. If I can’t be the best in that field, then it’s time to move on. On the other hand, if I do become the best, then I get bored and want to move on anyway. I don’t know the answer, only that life is full of offerings — like a candy store for a child. I can’t help wanting to try. I suppose, that’s what keeps me going.

With all of your traveling and moving you seem to live the life of a vagabond. Do you have a place you call home?

Home is where the heart is, and everywhere I’ve called home, I’ve left a bit of my heart. Right now I feel very at home on Maui, but I do feel most at home in London.

You wear many hats – pianist, composer, economist, mathematician, engineer, entrepreneur and teacher. How do you prioritize? If you had to choose one thing to do for the rest of your life, what would you choose? Okay, maybe two things…

I think we all wear different hats, whether to do with what we do or what we are. Right now I’m a teacher, researcher, and grant writer. When I was living in Utrecht, I was a pianist, composer, and writer. I prioritize by what’s needed to survive and what I’m most interested in — there’s an overlap to the next thing I’m going to be doing. If there’s one thing I’d do for the rest of my life that would be to do what I haven’t done before. I daresay, the sort of books I’m reading and the path I’m on now, I want to learn to just BE and not DO.

Are you pursuing any creative activity where you are a total beginner? How do you approach learning a new activity? Do you mess around with it or do you go methodically step-by-step through the learning process?

I suppose grant writing is a creative activity. I’ve just finished my third grant on Maui (and my fourth one, if you include my duo’s trip to Spain). I identify who the experts are and ask them questions. I do a lot of research on my own. I attend seminars and read a lot.

Are you an early riser or do you burn the midnight oil?

I wish I could be an early riser. I seem to take awhile to get into the momentum. Before I know it, the day is gone but I’m not ready to stop.

I see that you practice yoga. Do you also meditate? Was it difficult for you to put on the brakes and slow down? What differences do you notice in your life now that you’ve started these practices?

I’ve been doing yoga for many years now but I still can’t “truly” meditate. I say this because my mind is very busy. When I’m trying new or difficult poses, I do focus but I wouldn’t say it is meditation. I swim daily. It frees and calms my mind. That is a form of meditation in three dimension. I hope to one day “truly” meditate.

What’s next for you, Anne?

I would love to become a published author and churn out new bestsellers. I grew up reading Barbara Cartland and Harlequin Romance Novels. Maybe one day when I can’t be as physically active or energetic as I am now, I will finally settle down and write.

Sweet sixteen in a sundress I made in Okinawa (I loved to design and make my own 100% cotton dresses!)

Sweet sixteen in a sundress I made in Okinawa (I loved to design and make my own 100% cotton dresses!)


Follow Anne’s travels, adventures and reinventions by checking in on her website. And as always, if you know someone who has a 9 to 5 job or family obligations… but still finds time to incorporate creative play into their life, please email me at catherine (at) gmail (dot) com.

Interview with Judy Polstra

Judy Leeson Polstra

Judy Leeson Polstra (photo by Leo Reinfeld)

Judy, your life seems to epitomize the life of a creative. Do you make your living solely from your art or do you have a day job? Are you an early riser or do you burn the midnight oil? How do you balance it all?

I have an 8-5 day job with a commercial HVAC company. I coordinate monthly training classes for our 250 technicians located throughout eight states. My title is “Special Projects”, which means I report to our two VPs and the CFO, working on various projects as needed. I also oversee a small team of three men who maintain our national contracts. Fortunately, I have great bosses and the office is less than five miles from my home/studio, and wonderful benefits. It’s not a “punishing” job and does not require me to take it home.

I’ve always been a VERY early riser/early to bed, and tend to require little sleep. Often asleep by 9 p.m., I’m frequently wide awake before 2 a.m. and remain so until evening. Early morning has always been my favorite, most creative, time of day

I can’t always balance it all. Sometimes my focus is more on my music, other times, visual arts. I don’t watch much TV so most of my non-day job hours are spent either with my music or art. My husband travels frequently and I never had children (except the furry type) so my time is my own. As the Buddha said, “I can sleep when I’m dead”.

Lipstick Lover by Judy Leeson Polstra

Lipstick Lover by Judy Polstra

I see that you started your bejeweled mannequin series after the deaths of your mother and grandmother. As a self-taught artist, what was it that drew you to other mediums (cakes, furniture, painting, etc.) Do you have a favorite?

I get bored doing the same “type” of art. I find much of my inspiration at thrift stores, looking for nothing in particular. Often if something strikes me as particularly funny, odd, ugly, or beautiful (in other words, makes me react in SOME way), I’ll buy it. Sometimes I incorporate items quickly, other times not at all, and they will be donated again. Inspiration can come from anywhere!

I don’t have a favorite medium. Lately I’ve been working on “clothes”. Some could be wearable, others definitely not. All have a theme of the working against the “aging process”. I’m 49 and I’m inspired by the onslaught of infomercials telling women about everything that is “wrong” with them as they age. Grrr.

We’ve been hearing a lot about “flow” recently when it comes to the arts. How have your experienced flow in your work?

When I have an idea, I literally will not rest until it’s completed. Recent works are more inspired by the media and world events (i.e. women and the aging process as referenced above; the VA debacle and “corporations as people” as in a recent installation titled “The System”). Both of these projects have been extremely time intensive, but I cannot stop until they are completed.

Your work is full of whimsy and playfulness and fearlessness. What would you say to the person who always wanted to paint or play the piano but is bogged down by a full time job?

I have one of those full time jobs. I guess it all comes down to how badly you want to express yourself. I have had some nice sales over the years, but never enough for an income. The idea of a “starving artist” also never appealed to me.

I grew up with a sick Mother. From the time I was 7 years old, we were told she was going to die soon. (She died 32 years later.) I’ve always felt that there is never enough time, or soon I will run out of time. Growing up in an atmosphere of “imminent death” made me never take time for granted. I was carjacked at gunpoint four years ago. A relative was murdered inside his home within the same time-frame. We never know when our time here is going to end. We should not fear impermanence (hence, my “fearlessness” you mentioned) — but embrace it and CREATE. Don’t worry about the “results” or the “acclaim”. To me there is nothing sadder than to die and never have tried.

Tell us about your “Go Play Project”? Do you see any changes in your piano playing as you record each new piece? Has your study of jazz piano influenced your classical playing and your art? If so, how?

Cathy, YOU inspired the idea of “Go Play”— casual practice/performance sessions complete with mistakes, page turns, works in progress, etc. As fearless as I am in my visual art, I’m more fearful in my piano/keyboard playing. I studied classical music from the age of seven. I was never exposed to jazz or improve until the last 2 years. There was no “improv” in my classical studies. It was very serious, intense, and one was NEVER to make a mistake. With that pressure, I could barely play in front of anyone despite my advanced level of playing (Rachmaninoff preludes, Schumann, Prokofiev sonatas, Beethoven, etc.)

Studying jazz has helped me loosen all of my playing quite a bit and ENJOY it, rather than worry about the mistakes. At this point, I don’t imagine composing. Instead I love studying some of the GREAT piano jazz masters like Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, and Fats Waller. The chords are massive, the leaps are multi-octave, and the time and key signatures are all over the keyboard. It’s a blast! (My piano coach for the last 20 years is not happy with my change in musical passion. It’s nearly cost us our relationship as mentor/student and friends. While I’m sad about the loss, I’ve had to let it go…)

As for the mistakes, they are “as the artist intended” — whether in music or the visual arts.

What’s next for you? Tell us about any upcoming shows or projects.

Armor Against The Aging Process

Armor Against The Aging Process by Judy Polstra

Musically, this month, October, I’m playing at a local Museum who is hosting a Mad-hatter Tea Party, to raise funds for breast cancer. I’ll be playing primarily stride (Fats Waller), some rag-time, and some miscellaneous jazz.

Art wise, in October, I’m in two shows in Miami and one in Fort Lauderdale. I’m applying for a grant for next year, applying to an adjunct show for Art Basel, and another show in Naples for January. (You don’t know if you don’t apply! I keep my rejection letters. You can’t take it personally, and sometimes, you get some interesting (even funny!) comments).


Judy Polstra is a self-taught artist with a passion for piano. Visit her at judypolstra.com, or follow her on Facebook, Instagram, or LinkdIn.

 If you (or someone you know) has made it a priority to incorporate creative play into daily life, I’d love to talk. Please contact me at catherine.shefski(at)gmail.com.

9 Reasons You Should Start A “Go Play Project”

1.  Your work will improve. When you make a commitment to do one thing every day (or every other day) it usually gets easier and easier. That’s not to say there will be those days when your amateur work will look or sound, well, a little too amateur, and you’ll want to chuck the whole project. But on the whole, by the end of the thirty days, six months or one year, you’ll probably feel more at ease with whatever it was you decided to put your effort into.

2.  You can make new friends. Tell the world you’re recording one piano piece every week and all of a sudden there are people all over Twitter and Soundcoud – composers, pianists, improvisors – all doing the same thing. Reach out to them. They’re happy to support you. The only person you’re in competition with is yourself.

3.  It saves you from time-sucking activities. Don’t you just hate it when you sit down to watch TV and the next thing you know hours have flown by – precious time that you’ll never get back? You might not remember what you watched, or you might have even fallen asleep. Start a project and, sure, you’ll see time fly, but at the end of the day you’ll have created something.

4. It might lead you down a different path. When I was recording my Go Play Project I started with the safe pieces. Short pieces I’d played before. Pieces I know everyone would enjoy. About eight months into the project I started seeking out pieces that spoke to me. Music I’d never been exposed to. This upped the challenge because not only did I have to learn the notes in one week, I had to immerse myself in the new style of an unfamiliar composer. In the end I moved away from my beloved Chopin, into the more mysterious world of Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Janacek, and Medtner.

5.  It’s good for your health. When you’re so immersed in and concentrated on a project that time passes in an instant and all the background noise and chatter seems to disappear, you are said to be in a state of “flow.” Flow is likely to occur when your challenge is just slightly above your skill level. Flow leads to happiness and happiness leads to health. For an extra boost, add a higher purpose to the mix. And that higher purpose might simply be taking your project and sharing it with the world.

6.  You end up with a body of work. When you set a goal to complete 30 ink drawings for the month of InkTober, you will end up with a whole pile of drawings. You’ve made something! And no one can take that away from you. What you do with them is up to you. Post them to Tumblr or hide them in a drawer. Sell your work on Etsy. Or better yet, start another project!

7. You have a sense of urgency. Most of us have a tendency to procrastinate. And when the only person we have to answer to is ourselves, then it’s even harder to do those things we “should” do. It’s even harder to get to work on the things that may seem frivolous like those creative projects that always seem to get put on the back burner. By setting a deadline for ourselves and declaring it to the world, we quickly get down to work play!

8. There’s no room for perfectionism. When you set a goal to produce a large body of creative work in a short period of time, you don’t have time to linger over the details. Work this way and you avoid all the second-guessing that comes with perfectionism. There will be plenty of time when the project is done, to go back and work out all of the fine points.

9.  You come away with a sense of accomplishment. Perhaps this is the best reason to start a “Go Play Project.” Nothing can beat that feeling when you stand back and take a look at what you created. Whether it’s a 50,000 words of a half-baked novel, or 52 home-made piano recordings, or 30 pencil sketches of the same hand.

 

So you’re practicing?

originally posted by: ingeniousx on tumblr

Over the past few months I’ve noticed that when I mention to people that I started practicing piano again I get a variety of reactions. Most look at me like I just told them I took up a new hobby like quilt making or needlepoint. One suggested that it must be “relaxing” for me. My students usually give me a sidelong glance as if they’re wondering why I’d bother practicing piano at my age.

Luckily, most have no idea of all the musical “baggage” that accumulated over the years- the self-doubt, the performance nerves and the deterioration of technique from not practicing. There were the nagging thoughts that maybe I should be improvising and composing rather than playing music of dead composers. There were the times when making music was drudgery – hours of playing background music for a women’s bridge tournament and Christmas gigs with endless repetitions of I’ll Be Home For Christmas. There were horrible accompanying jobs (the orchestral reduction for the Jolivet bassoon concerto). And even while teaching the old saying “those who can’t play teach” would sometimes start running around in the back of my head.

These days I’m feeling very fortunate. I have the best group of students ever and I’m making the time to play the music I really want to play (such as this week’s Rachmaninoff’s Etude Tableau Op 33 No 8 in g minor). Of course, some things have changed around here. The TV hasn’t been on since the Superbowl. The beds go unmade most days and the laundry piles up. Meals are take-out or super-easy to prepare. The piano is priority. Each week (now at week #20) I become more determined to see this year through.

Oh yes, and speaking of other people’s reactions to this whole piano practice lifestyle…once in a while I get a wonderful response.

Last night my Twitter friend, Rhea Borja (@RheaB) messaged me that she was inspired by the Go Play Project to record Schumann-Liszt’s “Widmung.” Here’s her first take! Have a listen!

And follow along to get updates on new weekly recordings by clicking “like” on the Go Play Project Facebook page.

My Favorite Online Master Classes

I love browsing the piano master class videos on YouTube and I have a few favorites that I return to time after time. These are the great pianists and teachers who speak in more general terms about the music, concepts that can be applied to all music. Below are links to a few who have inspired me…

  1. Here is a two-part video of Rubinstein working with a student on Chopin’s g minor Ballade. Near the end of this clip he talks about nobility in music. “Music is an art of emotion, of nobility, of dignity, of greatness, of love, of tenderness….but never show-off pompousness…Liszt liked to show what he can do but there is always music behind it.”
  2. In the first part of a two-part video filmed at her former farmhouse in Portugal, pianist Maria Joao Pires talks about the bar line and how we should never hear it because it has “zero to do with the phrase.” She talks about time and space and breathing in music. Later she talks about how we must believe that “miracles can happen” because in music, they do.
  3. In this first part of a six-part video master class with Gyorgy Sebok we learn about the distinction between music told from the first person point of view and music that is an illustration of something… “when you don’t resonate but you understand.” Later he talks about how some pianists control by tension, but how he prefers controlling by freedom. Using the example of a Parisian waiter carrying a tray of soup he talks about how we can control things better in mobility. He also spends time explaining how to create the illusion of a glissando on the piano.
  4. Finally, there is the Barenboim master class six-part video series on the Beethoven Sonatas. (A complete list of the videos can be found here.) Barenboim talks about rubato, legato, how content determines speed, the sense of well-being that comes from tensionless playing, and how the performer should always go from the standpoint of the ear because the ear knows everything and remembers everything. Six hours of video and fifty years insight from Daniel Barenboim, priceless.

Happy listening!

Papillons and another book

(The second installment of Papillons is now posted on Soundcloud.  Third and final installment coming next Sunday.)

My year of piano immersion is leading me to pull out and reread some piano related books from my bookshelf. Russell Sherman’s Piano Pieces is  is one of those books that you can open to any page and find pearls of piano wisdom – everything from his thoughts on the thumb and the relationship of the fingertip to the piano key to piano competitions and pedagogy… and much more.

As I plunge ahead with my goal of recording 52 piano pieces (and pieces of piano pieces) I wonder if I’m making a mistake by choosing quantity over quality for this project.  Here’s sensible advice from Russell Sherman:

Should the student polish up a few pieces over and over again, refining touch and sensibility? Or should the student learn to deal, however conditionally, with many different pieces, augmenting repertoire, experience, and means of judgment? Quality vs. quantity, a tedious argument to be resolved in favor of productivity; i.e., a goodly amount well done, some chiseled and some not.

 

Wabi-Sabi in Piano

A SoundCloud friend, Peter Vorländer, (cis minor) introduced me to the concept of Wabi-Sabi the other day. He gave me just enough information to send me searching the web reading everything I could find on this topic. Here is his wonderful explanation….

Short about Wabi-Sabi: its a concept that values imperfection. For example many things become more beautiful when they become older, think of a piece of wood or the patina of a metal tea can. Thats Wabi-Sabi. There is a very compelling story of Ryuki, a famous japanese person. When he was young he decided that he wants to follow the path of learning to master the tea zeremony. He went to an old master and applied. The master told him: “I want to see if you are the right person to learn this. So hear you see my garden, its pretty disordered, please clean it up”. So for the full day young Ryuki was working in the garden and cleaning up everything with perfection, always secretly observed by the old master. At the evening he was finished. Everything was tidy. Ryuki stepped back and looked to the clean garden. But he had the impression, that something is wrong. He went to a cherry blossom tree, shaked it a little and three little cherry blossom leaves fall down on the cleaned path. Thereafter he was pleased. The old master who had observed this knew, that Ryuki will become great master of Wabi Sabi… And actually he became. So this is Wabi-Sabi … three little cherry blossom leaves on a cleaned pathway. Considered as imperfection with a western point of view, considered as highest perfection in Japanese culture of Wabi-Sabi. And I think the same applies for music…we need to strive for Wabi-Sabi, not for cold technical perfection. Once you start viewing the world with the eyes of Wabi-Sabi you will discover beauty almost everywhere … and so much pleasure comes from this!

In addition to getting back to the piano, another of my ongoing goals has been to de-clutter and lead a more Minimalist Lifestyle. As I look around my house and choose what will stay and what will go, I’m drawn to three or four possessions – an old blanket chest I purchased for $35 which was refinished by my father, my cracked majolica plates, a large yellow vase with hand-painted flowers, and a little green paint-splattered work table from my grandfather. These are the  pieces that have followed me from house to house, city to city, over the years. I can’t bring myself to put them out for a yard sale or donate them to charity yet.  These represent Wabi-Sabi to me. Imperfect. Natural. And a little sad.

I took time over the past few days to watch Marcel Theroux‘s documentary “In Search of Wabi-Sabi” and I’ve learned that Wabi-Sabi can be summed up in three sentences. Nothing is perfect. Nothing lasts. Nothing is finished.

Perhaps this “Go Play Project” has a touch of “Wabi-Sabi.” After all, the performances are not perfect, the recording process is as simple and as natural as it can get, and the pieces are all WIP’s (works in progress). They will never be complete as long as I find more to listen to and more subtleties to refine.

Could it also be that the pieces themselves summon the spirit of Wabi-Sabi and that is what makes a piece like Chopin’s Nocturne in c# minor speak to so many – musicians and non-musicians alike? The Rachmaninoff Etude Op 33 no 2 is a piece I’ve worked on only in the winter. Does that particular piece evoke  sense of the impending “death” that comes in winter? Are we drawn to certain composers and pieces in the same way we’re drawn to certain comfort foods, pieces of furniture and art, and nature settings?