AMN mentors Piano Talking about Music Workshops

Meet Bob Athayde, Pianist and Music Educator

“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.

Bob Athayde

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!

Photo of Bob with students: Kerwin Lee

AMN mentors Composers Piano Talking about Music

Meet pianist and new-music mentor Sarah Cahill

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.

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AMN mentors Piano Workshops

Meet Eric Zivian, piano and fortepiano mentor

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.

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AMN mentors Piano Strings: Violin, Viola, Cello, Bass Workshops

Playing in harmony: what makes a successful musical collaboration?

What does it take to collaborate musically? How do you find a musical collaborator who’s right for you?

In anticipation of our September 26 online conversation about collaboration with pianist Gwendolyn Mok, we chatted with Robert Howard, who will moderate the conversation. Robert is an accomplished cellist who has collaborated with Gwen and other pianists in performance and on recording; during the workshop, he and Gwen will play excerpts from Beethoven’s Cello Sonata in g-minor and Rachmaninoff’s Sonata in g-minor for Cello and Piano.

Gwen Mok and Robert Howard, taking a rehearsal break.

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!

Gwen and her masked pup, Pippa.

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!


Follow Robert on Instagram at @rhowardcello.

Learn more about Gwendolyn Mok on her website.


AMN mentors Early Music and Period Instruments Piano Talking about Music Workshops

A new way to perform old music

This is a guest post by Nancy Friedman, an AMN volunteer.

You’ve played Bach, Vivaldi, and Haydn for years on your modern instrument. But have you ever wished to play that music in historically-informed style … without investing in costly period instruments?

Now you can! Throughout October, Amateur Music Network is presenting Early Music for Modern Instruments, a series of online workshops for skilled amateur musicians taught by early-music mentors Elizabeth Blumenstock (violin), Eric Zivian (piano and fortepiano), and William Skeen (cello).

Elizabeth, Eric, and William

“With most of us still stuck at home, there’s never been a better time to expand our musical horizons,” says AMN founder and director Lolly Lewis. “If you’ve worked hard on the standard classical path, you know the repertoire. Now you can learn new tools and approaches from early-music specialists that will give you even more appreciation of the music you love.”

What makes early music different from modern music?

The history of music is a history of technology—and of loudness. “Before the early 19th century, smaller ensembles were the rule. Large concerts were rare, outside of opera, and art music was mostly a private thing, something for the homes of wealthy patrons,” Lolly says. “It didn’t need to be very loud because audiences were small.”

That changed in a big way in the early 19th century, as instrument technology improved. Orchestras were getting larger and wind instruments could freely modulate and stay reliably in tune. Composers began writing virtuosic concertos to be played with the larger orchestras: “The solo artist needed to project over that big ensemble sound,” Lolly explains. Violins, violas, and cellos, the primary solo instruments, had to adapt to handle more string tension. Their bridges were raised to create more resonance; necks were set at a steeper angle; bows were redesigned with a concave curve to allow more tension in the hair.

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Baroque (left) and modern violin. Via A415 blog.


Baroque and modern violin bows, via Vermont Violins.

“Now we have big, lush string sections and big wind and brass sections with a huge sound,” says Lolly. “That’s what ‘classical’ music sounds like to us—but it’s not how it sounded three centuries ago.”

When she isn’t managing AMN, Lolly is a recording producer. Her interest in early music was sparked in the 1990s when her studio, Transparent Recordings, worked with Bay Area early-music specialists the Artaria Quartet. “It was completely new to me,” she recalls. “I knew it sounded different from modern music, in the intonation and a generally more muted sound, but then I realized that the dynamic range was turned upside down! Instead of emphasizing loudness, there’s a potential for exploring a vast expanse of subtlety that’s almost unlimited. That was really exciting for me.”

Modern instruments aren’t just louder: they’re also able to play reliably in tune in any key. “It all changed with the piano,” Lolly says. “Unlike its ancestor the fortepiano, the modern piano has true ‘equal temperament’—the tuning doesn’t vary across registers and tonal centers. This results in a manufactured tuning system that’s equally out of tune in all keys. Sounds weird, but we’ve become so accustomed to it that this is what our ears are comfortable with now.” Once pianos set the standard, other instruments followed suit.

The evolution of the piano, via Merriam Music.


Professional early-music specialists invest in original or replica instruments—a good bow alone can cost many thousands of dollars. But skilled amateurs can adapt their modern instruments—and their technique—to explore the phrasing and articulation of historical style. The limitations of instruments in the past are now opportunities for discovery for the players of today. 

Join us in October to explore some exciting new approaches to familiar and beloved works of music. 


NOTE: If you already have Baroque equipment, that’s great! You’ll love working with these great mentors, too.