From the very first notes of the Prelude, we enter the world of Bach’s cello suites with wonder – it’s almost like walking out on a perfectly clear night and seeing the sky full of stars. Oh, to be a cellist with the mastery to play in that sonic universe!
Pianist Eleonor Bindman has felt that amazement and has distilled it for you into a piano edition that is perfect for amateur pianists – and for anyone who loves Bach and wants to learn more.
“Anybody who plays [Bach becomes] a channel for his amazing spirit,” says Bindman. “You really feel like you’re getting something more than just the enjoyment of music: it can be a very transformative, spiritual experience.”
Bindman has arranged several of Bach’s works, including the Brandenburg Concertos (for piano duet) and selections from cantatas and orchestral suites, as well as favorites from the music of Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky. As a teacher, she is a committed advocate for amateur music-making, and says of amateur musicians, “You’re doing something you love – it’s not your job, you don’t have to do it – so you need to have repertoire that you love to play, and that isn’t going to take you weeks and months to learn.”
AMN concurs! And we are looking forward to exploring the starry skies of Bach with her on September 25.
“We all play together” has been pianist, bandleader, and chorus director Bob Athayde’s motto since he began teaching at Stanley Middle School, in Lafayette, California, in 1986. We’ll have a chance to bring that motto to life on March 20, when Bob leads our “Anyone Can Improvise!” online workshop. We reached Bob at his Orinda, California, home to learn more about his career and his approach to teaching.
Tell us a little about your background. Is yours a musical family?
My wife is a musician and music teacher, and all four of my kids play music. I guess they grew up thinking everyone plays music. My son Kyle, who plays trumpet, is my artist-assistant—he’s three times the musician I’ll ever be!
You’ve devoted your professional life to teaching young people. What do you find most satisfying about teaching?
The most satisfying thing is seeing that light bulb switch on in a student’s mind, whether it’s a fourth-grader or an adult. When I can get people to feel joyful about what they’re engaged in I know I’ve gotten the concept across!
You’re teaching remotely now. How is that going?
We closed the school, of course, so I’ve been teaching remotely for a year. But I still go into my classroom, because it makes me feel more businesslike. I have a Steinway grand piano there—it’s in mint condition—plus two computers, an extra camera, and a state-of-the-art microphone with audio interface. I have a big screen and put all the kids’ faces up there.
Do you have any tips for Zoom learning?
I’m used to being in person with large groups of people, so at first, Zoom was strange. After a year of Zooming, I’ve gotten used to it, and am grateful to have that platform. I keep track of teachers around the country who are doing great things with Zoom, and I learn from them.
Besides teaching remotely, what else have you been during during the pandemic, musically and otherwise?
Before Covid, I had a weekly gig playing piano at La Finestra Ristorante in Moraga. That went away, but I now stream a set via Facebook Live every Friday and Saturday from 6 to 7 p.m. I’ve attended a lot of online master classes and listened to [jazz pianist] Herbie Hancock’s Harvard lecture series. And I’ve walked our dog more—and met a lot of neighbors on my walks!
For some classically trained musicians, improvisation can feel a little scary. What can you tell them to make it less daunting?
I’d tell them to be more like kids. To remember that this is your expression—that just as no two people have the same fingerprints, no two people play music the same. You’re making a contribution to art, to music.
Sometimes I look at the piano and tell myself to play something I’ve never played before. Of course I’m filled with ideas of things I’ve done before. But then I might come out with something new and interesting. Listen, I make so many mistakes that if I were leading a band I probably wouldn’t hire me! But I don’t care, because I’m batting .500, which would get me into the major leagues.
And remember: it’s playing music, not working music!
What better way to ring out 2020 and ring in a new year than with Sarah Cahill, a renowned pianist and advocate for new music? On Saturday, December 5, Sarah will join us via Zoom to talk about her multifaceted musical life, which spans performing, commissioning and premiering new works, writing about music, and hosting “Revolutions Per Minute,” a long-running radio program on KALW-FM in Berkeley.
We chatted with Sarah via email, eager to learn more about her influences, her inspirations, and her process for commissioning new work.
We’re concluding our Early Music for Modern Instruments series with an October 24 online workshop with acclaimed pianist, fortepianist, and composer Eric Zivian. To learn more about the secrets of the fortepiano—the predecessor of the modern piano—we reached Eric at the Berkeley home he shares with his professional and life partner, the cellist Tanya Tomkins; and three pianos of different vintages.
What’s the difference between an accompanist and a collaborator?
I think of a collaborator as an equal partner—someone who will make things interesting without drowning out the other performer.
Occasionally with some virtuoso repertoire you want an accompanist who’ll stay in the background. But for the workshop Gwen and I deliberately picked pieces that have some involved piano parts, so Gwen can have an opportunity to shine.
How do you find the right collaborator?
The best way is through a trusted musical acquaintance—sort of a matchmaker—who will make an introduction. Or you might find someone through a chamber-music workshop, a reading session, or a house party. Speaking for myself, I have to hear the person play. I can usually tell within a few lines if there’s potential there.
How have you and Gwen prepared for the September 26 workshop?
Gwen and I have played together previously—last year I was one of five cellists who played the five Beethoven cello sonatas with her. Because of the pandemic, we’ve prepared mostly by talking on the phone and having a Zoom cocktail hour. But we finally got together to rehearse in the same room on September 16, at her house in Berkeley. We’ll do the online workshop from my house in San Francisco. In both places there’s plenty of room to be safely distanced!
You normally have an intense performance schedule. Obviously, that hasn’t been happening because of COVID. How have you been keeping busy and engaged?
There have been a few silver linings, one of them being how everything’s so international now. I’ve been taking lessons from a very fine cellist in Berlin, and I’ve been teaching students in Kenya and Colombia.
And I’ve appreciated all the creative content on Instagram. YoYo Ma posts something almost every day—speaking of great collaborations, he’s played via Zoom with a singer in Mali, some musicians in China, the Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, and many other people. Pablo Ferrández is an excellent Spanish cellist with a very active Instagram account. And Nathan Chan, who’s a Bay Area native and the youngest member of the Seattle Symphony, recently posted a video of his performance of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” before a San Francisco Giants game at T-Mobile Park!