Adventures in Fear and Discovery: Learning Music Outside the Canon, Part 1

It’s been a hot minute since the last time I wrote here—between then and now there have been thousands of miles of air travel, a lot of faffing about on Instagram Stories, even more unprofessional faffing about on Twitter, a whole new language learned(-ish), many performances with and without other people, a move to a new city, a wild midterm election, a truly terrible season of House of Cards, several excellent high-grossing movies, some awful movies that made a lot of money anyway, some excellent movies that didn’t make enough money, the discovery of an awesome TV show, and the slow realization that although I haven’t had enough time for all the sleep I should have gotten this year I somehow had the time to watch a lot of movies and TV.

Hmm.

When I wrote last year’s post about branching out of standard piano repertoire (recap: it’s all by white dudes) to explore music by women and people of color, I’ll admit I had a secret little fear that I wouldn’t be able to follow through and that my good intentions would wilt and I’d go back to my usual diet of Bach, Beethoven, and Chopin.

Well, I’ve been chugging along at my personal crusade of searching out and learning music by female composers, and I’m happy to report that 1) I haven’t given up, and 2) I have a lot to say about the journey so far, which has been a roller coaster of fear and discovery (hence the blog title). There are a lot of unique challenges that come with straying from the canon, as well as a lot of really special bonuses that you don’t get playing music from the standard menu.

This post will be a two-parter, because I started writing this and it got…really long. So Part 1 will focus on the challenges I’ve encountered so far, and Part 2 will be all about the wonderful, magical parts of the process that (spoiler alert!) make the challenges worth it.

So let’s get into this, shall we?

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Let’s Get Some More People in This Party

Photo of a most excellent statue of Angsty Beethoven, from a recent trip to the Naples Conservatory of Music; my favorite thing about this statue is that from the side, you can see that Ludwig has draped himself on this rock like everyone’s favorite mermaid.

When you’ve been performing music for as long as I have (and I’ve been performing since before I had any understanding of what a job or career was) you can go a long time before you realize that you’re complicit in a quiet and unstated kind of hypocrisy.

And that hypocrisy is this: classical music is universal, right? It spans languages, cultures, distance, age, and time. It’s extremely powerful stuff that everyone—and anyone—can relate to.

And yet! Although people of every sort have been writing music for as long as written history exists, and a whole freaking lot of classically trained musicians exist in the world (seriously, have you noticed how many of us there are? it’s nuts!!), the suspiciously vast majority of music performed is music written by a relatively small sample of white European male composers.

How universal is that, really?

The thing that I used to think, and that unfortunately a lot of people still believe, is that this is simply because women and people of color haven’t contributed much to the classical music canon. This type of thinking is easily debunked, though, if you put even the tiniest, laziest amount of research into music history, or even just history in general. Women and people of color (POC) have been a big part of the story, but when it comes time for us in the present to curate selections from the historical record, we end up reinforcing the idea that only a small subsection matters.

“So you’re not being inclusive of enough dead people,” you say. “Big whoop.”

Well, Reader-Who-I’m-Imagining-is-a-Sullen-Teenage-Me, it is a big whoop. The way we represent history can lead to unfortunate perspectives on culture that end up affecting modern society, and how we see people today.

The way we frame history has actual, real-world consequences. The way we tell a prologue can affect how we choose to continue the story.

So while it may seem laughably trivial to say “Hey, why don’t we play more classical music by people who aren’t just dead white dudes?”, I think it’s one of those little things that subtly shapes how we view people and culture as a whole. Perpetuating the myth that exclusion is a normal component of something legitimizes the excuse that exclusion is necessary for maintaining the status quo. It is also a little messed up that the choice to be more representative of a real collection of voices from history requires a conscious deviation from an established canon, but hey, this is a messed up world sometimes.

Anyway, that is the arduous thought process behind my realization of “holy crap, I really need to play some music by women and people of color.” It’s not an earth-shattering change, but it’s what I can do with my power as a musician—and hopefully it’ll convince other musicians to follow suit, and audiences to listen with open ears.

Now here is where you, dear reader (who I’m no longer assuming is Sullen Teenage Me), get to help.

  • My goal is simple: to incorporate music by composers who are female and/or POC into my concert repertoire. Currently the number of pieces in my hands that fit this criteria is 0.
  • I’ve been doing my research, but I am positive that there’s a wealth of composers out there I just haven’t heard of yet. So if you know any women/POC composers who have written works for the piano, please tell me via comment or tweet! (I might compile my list into a future blog posts so other pianists can have at it.)
  • If you are a somebody or you know a somebody who organizes or promotes concerts and would like to support a concert featuring inclusive programming, please let me know!

P.S. You can read more on my thoughts on classism in music or the role of art in the world on this blog, and if you’re the type of person who digs interesting articles, I have a few more lists, and I often share cool things I read on Twitter

P.P.S. I just got back from wiggling my fingers in Italy and here’s the proof

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Eating Through Singapore: My Recommendations

It’s funny how there’s often a gaping chasm slight disconnect between the aspirational selves we craft in our minds, and who we are in reality. I spend a great deal of mental energy convincing myself that I am a high-minded idealist whose ideal day would be spent making beautiful music and philosophizing about art and society, but if we’re being honest here, I really just live for food.

Which is why I happily hopped on a 17-hour flight to Singapore back in March, with the sole intention of spending my time sleeping and eating.*

*Before you scoff at my lack of culture and refinement, I did visit the National Gallery, which I loved.

To assuage any guilt I had over not practicing with some 57349453 concerts on the horizon, I brought my music with me, as is standard practice when I travel anywhere, and studied it in the hotel room…

…which often was broken up by long breaks in which I added to an ever-growing list of places to get food:

Sadly I was not able to get to the majority of the restaurants and food stalls on my list, but here stands my recommended list of what to eat.


Wah Kee Big Prawn Noodle (8 Raffles Avenue) was one of the first places I stumbled into. Their iPad ordering system (with pictures!) is super handy and the food, of course, is 👌🏻.

The prawn noodles were enough of a meal, but I am greedy and am physically incapable of resisting fresh oysters. And pineapple juice. Shut up, I have a lot of food-related weaknesses.

Quick note: after you’re finished with your meal, pay at the counter in front of the door. Don’t be like me and sit around in confusion doing nothing at your table.


Makansutra Gluttons Bay (8 Raffles Avenue, directions here) is a glorious gathering of food stalls, also on Raffles Ave, with cute hipster lights and plenty of seats. I don’t know if you’re supposed to do this, but I ran around placing orders at three different stalls. The vendors seemed cool with this, and even helped me fit all my food on one tray.

I wish I could have sampled more offerings, but it was just me eating and there’s only so much I can eat. I noticed over the course of several days that eating is very much a social thing in Singapore, and I seemed to get a lot of looks for eating by myself, which hasn’t really happened to me in any of the other cities I’ve eaten through.

This is relevant because after I successfully carried my food to a table without dropping any of it (a serious concern of one of the vendors), I noticed a couple next to me occasionally glancing my way and murmuring in Chinese. I caught a couple of phrases: “…she’s all by herself” and then, a few minutes later: “…must be really hungry.”

I was really hungry, thank you very much.

I felt somewhat vindicated when I spotted a single guy a couple tables over also all by himself with just as much food in front of him as I had, who was taking phone photos of said food just like I was. “Aha, I am not weird!” I thought to myself.

A few minutes later, his friend sat down to join him and they proceeded to eat together.

The place is called “Gluttons Bay,” guys. I am not weird.

In any case, the platter of skewers from Alhambra Padang Satay was phenomenal—I highly recommend it, and have to admit it’s designed to be shared. Bring a friend when you go; you’ll get to order more food, and you’ll escape the locals’ judgment.


Hainanese Delicacy/海南美味佳肴 (14 Scotts Road, 5th floor of the Far East Plaza mall) is one of those hole-in-the-wall places with criminally cheap and delicious food. I couldn’t let myself leave Singapore without trying Hainanese chicken rice, but didn’t want to go somewhere overpriced and touristy.

I was buoyed to see a line of locals out the door here, and was quickly seated at a communal table between strangers. Fine with me. If you’ve eaten at one of those no-fuss alley restaurants elsewhere in Asia, this is just like that.

I didn’t see a prominent menu, so I just asked for chicken rice, and was promptly hit with a barrage of options: steamed or roasted, did I want a vegetable, what type, etc. I answered more or less at random, but was quickly served several plates of utter deliciousness. (That rice!)

By the way, everything in the photo above cost under $10 total. It helps if you speak Mandarin, but is not necessary. Be willing and ready to scarf your food down while seated next to or across from strangers.

Bonus: Sunfirst Fresh Fruits (14 Scotts Road, 4th floor of the Far East Plaza mall) for fresh juice. I got a cup of freshly blended papaya milk—just like grandma used to make.


No Signboard Seafood (414 Geylang Road) is a super-must. Be warned: this is a famous joint so 1) if you go during typical meal times there’ll be a wait, and 2) everyone in the world will tell you the story of how the place got its name. (The story is that it started as a stall with no name, so its customers called it “No Signboard.” That’s it, that’s the story.)

Our cab driver was very chatty, and warned us that the Geylang area of Singapore was not the nicest—as he drove down one street, he pointed out his window and said, “That’s where all the street walkers are.”

Because I am terrible at discerning human speech and I had food on the mind, I heard him say “street hawkers,” as in food vendors. I opened my mouth to ask him which ones he’d recommend, but luckily he kept talking and I realized in time that he was talking about escorts and not delicious food.

Anyway. Go to Geylang for the seafood, not the prostitutes, kthxbai.

  

Recommended: the white pepper crab (their signature dish), fried prawns (I ordered the cereal prawns, which were delicious, but imagined they’d be equally delicious without the cereal), 空心菜/kang kong, and fried 馒头/mantou. This was enough for two people to comfortably eat with a bowl of rice each.

Note: When you’re seated, a server will place a bowl of peanuts on the table and ask if you want them. This is a trap. They charge extra for the peanuts, and in any case you are not here to eat peanuts. You are here to eat white pepper crab. Don’t be a fool.

(They also offer bibs for an extra charge. If you are a messy eater, swallow your pride and say yes.)


If you have more recommendations for places to eat in Singapore, please share! I’m going to attempt to do more of these eating guides from now on because I take eating very, very seriously.

 

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