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Susan Merdinger / Blog

New Review from Classical Candor- John Puccio

Dear Fans, I am happy to report about a beautifully written new review from John Puccio/Classical Candor has just been published! Please visit his website to read the whole thinghttp://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2014/01/schumann-carnival-cd-review.html

On becoming a professional musician and teaching:

As music teachers, parents, mentors- which type is more successful: A. The "tiger mom" or "tyrant teacher" B. The nurturing, caring and praising teacher, who helps unlock the hidden potentials and talents in all students C. Both of the above. I think the answer is clear. In my book- it is "C". There are many books I have read or am currently reading outlining the different approaches to achieving success- Colvin's "Talent is Overrated", Coyle's "The Talent Code", Dweck's " Mindset, and now Lipman and Kupchynsky's "String's Attached". Without going into detail just yet, I think it is much too general to take the approach that tough love and harsh, punitive teaching styles can work for all individuals, nor can a soft, nurturing approach work for many laid-back, low-energy type personalities. And depending on the particular talents and personal characteristics of a student, a private music teacher must mold and adapt their teaching style to each individual student, otherwise they risk losing or even destroying the potential of that student. We have all heard of countless horror stories of coaches and teachers of both musicians and athletes, who used the wrong approach, and it ruined the future career potential of their students. This happened at prestigious schools like Juilliard, and with famous sports teams, as outlined in Carol Dweck's book, Mindset. There is no doubt about it: a successful teacher must be a highly gifted and unusual person, possessing of the skills of a sports psychologist, the warmth and loving concern of a parent, the strict discipline, logical planning and goal-setting of a CEO, and the perseverance and patience of a Saint! Sometimes a teacher must "light the fire", and at other times, a teacher might need to be the "calming, soothing influence". Always, a teacher must set high standards, demonstrate the precise ways to reach the loftiest goals a student may have, and help them "unlock" their potential. What are your fondest memories of a teacher in your life, and what type of teacher were they?

What does it take?

Just what does it take to raise a successful musician? I've been asking myself that for quite a while. I've been wondering what my own parents could have done differently or better in raising me to be a musician. Now, as a parent of three aspiring professional musicians, and a teacher of many young students, the question has become even more important to define and attempt to answer. One thing is for sure: as surely as they say it takes "a community" to raise a child, it takes that and more to create and then support a professional musician in their journey. It also sometimes takes generations of a family. Witness how many professional musicians were born to a parents or an entire family of musicians. Not just the music gets passed down, but a way of life, learning from mistakes and successes of one's parents, grandparents, mentors, teachers.. It is the same whether one is musician or a scientist- we all must stand on the shoulders of those who come before us, and inherit the fullest part of their legacy. We must respect our elders but at the same time be individual enough to carve out our own paths and be true to ourselves.


I watch TV very rarely, but a few years ago I happened to turn on the TV one day and The Oprah Winfrey Show was on. And Oprah's message on that day, quite happily for me, was just what I needed to hear. A message of HOPE. She said basically that THE CREAM WILL ALWAYS RISE TO THE TOP. That if you are GOOD at what you do, PEOPLE WILL NOTICE. EVENTUALLY. IT MAY TAKE SOME TIME, BUT IT WILL HAPPEN.

In recent years, after many personal and financial losses and setbacks, I decided that somehow, I would achieve my goals no matter how long it would take me, in spite of what anyone else might say or think, and in spite of these seemingly insurmountable problems. I discovered that the relative amount of talent, luck and money are not what REALLY matters- what matters are TWO ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS: PASSION AND DEDICATION. If you LOVE something, and you WANT something, YOU WILL MAKE SACRIFICES FOR YOUR ARTISTIC PASSION. IF YOU LOVE MAKING MUSIC, AND THERE IS NO OTHER OPTION- YOU SIMPLY DO WHAT YOU MUST DO!! Perhaps it means getting only 6 hours of sleep each night, perhaps it means not taking any vacations year after year, perhaps it means taking on extra work to pay the bills and essentially working two jobs. SO, I owe thanks to Oprah. Because she made me realize that if I BELIEVED IN MYSELF, if I believed I was good, ( not necessarily great, but simply good enough to attain one's established goals) and if I truly LOVED what I have spent my entire life doing, then THERE WAS HOPE AND A VERY GOOD CHANCE I WOULD SUCCEED. And with that HOPE and OPTIMISM, there comes a certain CONTENTMENT. With personal contentment, the true love for music will be fully communicated. And that is why I am still playing and bringing my music-making to people who I hope will appreciate it and enjoy it. And in some small measure, I know that I am helping to keep classical music alive. On that day I decided to play every concert as if it might be my last. To invest as much of my energies into insuring a great outcome, no matter the audience, the venue or how much I might earn from such a concert, or how many hours it would take to prepare. My goal was and always has been to put all of my effort and passion and energy into the music I perform. For years I thought that passion and talent would be enough; quite honestly, it simply wasn't, and I didn't know why. Now, Oprah gave me HOPE that one's efforts, one's passion will be recognized, THAT PASSION AND DEDICATION IS THE ONLY THING THAT REALLY MATTERS.. Reading the book Freakonomics and The Talent Code, was also eye-opening for me. Yes, 10,000 hours is the benchmark for achieving "mastery"- but the reality is that is JUST THE BEGINNING. Most concert artists hit the 10,000 hours mark by the time they are in their early teens. Again, the key is to never stop, never lose sight of your dreams. SO, for over 20+ years, I have been getting myself OUT THERE. Learning new music all the time, playing as many concerts as I can manage to get, practicing diligently, almost obsessively, for hours every day.

Thus, my upcoming orchestra debut with the Chicago Philharmonic, which is a major highlight of my career thus far, could theoretically be my last concert for all I know! But, I remain optimistic that it will NOT be my last. OPTIMISM EQUALS HOPE. HOPE AND DETERMINATION EQUALS SUCCESS. That story will be the subject of my next blog- how to survive the ups and downs of the concert career, no matter what age or stage you are at, and how "SUCCESS is in the eyes of the beholder".


On to another form of LUCK- Getting HEARD by the right people. Well, this is usually a function of the parents and teachers of the young musical prodigy or aspiring older student. Some parents and teachers are better at this than others. Parents who make their children's career THEIR full-time career, are helping them immensely. There is no substitute for a parent who works to obtain the best teachers, the concert opportunities, searches for good competitions, and festival to attend and directs a young musicians career until a certain age. Some teachers are great at teaching, but not at career development, and hopefully one can find a teacher with both traits.

SO which is better? The great "famous" teacher-performer who won a ton of competitions, is always on the road "on tour"- or the teacher who will open doors for you, who has long since retired from the concert stage- and can devote all their energies into molding and shaping the young musician? Never an easy choice, because what one puts on the resume is always important. Another aspect of LUCK- being BORN into a family with A LOT of MONEY and POLITICAL CONNECTIONS. Basically, if you have money, you can BUY FAME. You can buy the best orchestra to make your debut with, in the best halls, and if your talent proves meritorious, you can COMPLETELY BYPASS THE MAJOR INTERNATIONAL COMPETITIONS! WOW! That would be really, really nice, you might say. But, in the end, you still have to have the talent and the CONFIDENCE, and if your Mommy and Daddy or rich Uncle PAID for your opportunities, you will never know IF YOU COULD HAVE MADE IT ON YOUR OWN. But, as LUCK would have it, the MORE opportunities one has to perform, THE BETTER ONE GETS, SO MONEY ALWAYS HELPS. Aside from what money can buy- the best teachers, the orchestra and recital debuts in important cities, the professional recordings, etc..it ALSO BUYS THE LUXURY AND FREEDOM FROM HAVING TO EARN A LIVING, AND WITH IT THE ABILITY TO FOCUS ENTIRELY ON PRODUCING MUSIC. SO, that is why MONEY TRUMPS everything else...because A TON OF PEOPLE HAVE TALENT. But, without MONEY to back a career, your odds are much lower at a chance of success. If you are not born into a family with money, and if you aren’t LUCKY enough to win a major competition, then the next best route is to find a sponsor or impresario who believes in you and has to money and connections to hep you- by providing multiple opportunities to perform and get noticed and gain experience. THEN, IS A SUCCESSFUL CLASSICAL PERFORMING CAREER NOTHING MORE THAN AN IMPOSSIBLE DREAM FOR MOST OF US "POOR" MUSICIANS? Maybe.... maybe not. The answer is forthcoming in my next blog entry!


So, in my last post I stated what is the unassailable truth about becoming a successful concert artist: the need for luck and money. But what about talent, you might ask- doesn't that count? Well, of course it does! One must assume that everybody pursuing a performing career has SOME talent and these days usually it is quite A LOT OF TALENT. Obviously, some have more than others. And some with abundant talent, more than the majority of "famous" performers, never become successful or "famous"- nor well-known in the classical music world, nor highly paid and "in demand". So here is the LUCK aspect in a nutshell. If you want to bank on LUCK, you must enter a lot of competitions and win at least a few. Even then, plenty of top-prize winners after their big wins, go on to have careers which are modest, often entail a nice teaching post at a conservatory or university, and a steady stream of opportunities to record: still enjoying a better career than most who do not win anything. But do they remain "Famous"?: most certainly not. Are they successful in most people's minds? - Yes. But here is the LUCK aspect to that success..Chances are that EVERYONE who was accepted into the major competitions that year, that our typical First Prize Winner wins, COULD EASILY HAVE TAKEN FIRST PRIZE! Sometimes there might be only a few wrong notes, or a slight memory lapse that separates the top prize winner from the rest of the pool. Sometimes, there is NO DIFFERENCE AT ALL: MUSIC IS ALL SUBJECTIVE ANYWAY! And people in the audience wonder, why didn't this or that pianist, or this or that violinist get past the first round or become a finalist? Sometimes, one even has to wonder what were the judges thinking when they voted a certain person to go into the final round, because somehow their performance falters in the end. Which just proves my point about luck..in order to win a competition, you have to play at YOUR OPTIMAL BEST IN EVERY SINGLE ROUND, BUT ESPECIALLY THE FIRST ROUND- because FIRST IMPRESSIONS COUNT THE MOST. So, there you have it, the musicians who play best in the first round, even if they are just OK in the second round, still have a chance at winning, and that is the name of the game. But, doing your absolute BEST playing the the FIRST round of every competition one enters is not always an easy task. Do you play for accuracy or musicality? That will depend on the judges, and knowing what they are looking for, and not offending any one judge with your interpretations. So, playing it safe, seems the way to go. BORING! In my mind, I would rather play musically, with a solid, if not 100% note-perfect technique. Eventually, and hopefully, that special musicality, originality, charisma and temperment that a musician has, with a solid, consistent technique, WILL be honored with prizes. Given the level of playing currently being displayed at the current Can Cliburn Piano Competition, I would say that the judges are going to have a pretty tough time. But, in the end, everyone will feel that the end result, the named prize-winners is justified. And how can it not be- when everyone is so good, anyone who is annointed the winner will become the winner that everyone wants to hear.

Defining A Music Career- What is FAME?

When I was a pianist in my 30's, I was performing quite a lot of concerts, both solo and with various orchestras, albeit mostly local in the New York Tri-State area. I was also mother of three children who came to all of my concerts bearing bouquets of flowers for me, being oh-so-well-behaved and attentive- (something I did not fully appreciate until many years later when I discovered just how difficult and noisy other children can be in a "formal" concert setting). But, what I found most amusing was when a big article came out about an upcoming concert of mine with the Ridgewood Symphony. My young daughter Stefanie said to me, "Mommy, you're famous, aren't you?" At that moment, I could hardly believe my ears, because in my mind I was just a local, no-name artist, who was struggling to become well-known, in-demand, high-profile. I replied to my daughter, "No, I am not famous, and probably never will be." Now, fast-forward about 15 years, and here I am having just performed on the prestigious Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chamber Music Series for the second time, and my other daughter Sarah daughter, a 20 year old student at the Eastman School of Music, posts photos of it to her facebook. Whereupon, all her aspiring musician friends, are so impressed, and I am thinking to myself, "If only they KNEW what a difficult career lies ahead for them!". Because, you see, in spite of the accomplishments I have had, I am still relatively UN-famous. ( hopefully not INfamous!) Compared to all the big-time pianists who play the big solo recitals in Symphony Center and Lincoln Center, and tour around the world, have discographies of 30 or more recordings, and never have to worry about when their next concert may be, I am still just a no-name artist. Yesterday, one of my adult students, who just so happened to be in attendance at my CSO Chamber Music Concert, unbeknownst to me, told me at his lesson that he thought the concert was just "perfection". And he wondered what differentiates me from say, Martha Argerich, or Maurizio Pollini or Yvgeny Kissin.... In other words, he wondered out loud, why am I NOT more famous. Which is what has led me to compose this blog- because I am grappling with the notion of what it means to be "famous" and whether being "famous" defines and guarantees excellence in music performance. There are several books which have been written in which "famous" pianists weigh in on what it takes to have a successful performance career. I have read those books, and checked off all the requirements I feel I have met, and so now I also wonder WHY AM I NOT MORE FAMOUS? I think the answer lies in a video that Mitsuko Uchida made in which she outlines what qualities she feels are required for a performing artist to be successful, all of which I agree with. But, then she also goes on to add two other elements, which I absolutely feel should not be necessary, but unfortunately have proven to be very necessary indeed: LUCK AND MONEY. In my next blog, I will address the separate but related issues of luck and money for the success of a performer, and for the future of classical music, as well. I will also share with you my history of good luck and bad luck, and my good fortunes and financial disasters, stories of personal loss and heartbreak, and how this has impacted my life, my career goals, and the pursuit of my life's dream up until now. Will this be of interest to anyone? Not really, unless I happen someday to really become "famous". But, for now, it may serve to help a younger generation of musicians to figure things out and learn from my own personal experiences. Of course, I will be most interested if any of my Facebook friends would like to offer their opinions and suggestions on this topic, as well.

The "Sound of Music": an Ephemeral Art

Is making music an addiction? I often wonder about why music is so necessary in our lives. And then I realized it is somewhat like a drug...the more you play it, listen to it, compose it, study it or analyze it, the more you realize that you can never get enough. And the effects of playing or listening to music are not only cumulative, but also ephemeral. That is, music exists in its truest form as something which does not last and is not tangible. Once it is over it is over. The printed score, a two-dimensional visual, is only a partial representation of a composer's actual intentions and the outcome of a performance is the only recognizable form to many who cannot read a score and "hear" it in their head just from looking at it. Thus, I find myself, in the days after a performance, wanting to re-live the music in my head, but to no avail. Even with our advanced recording technology, hearing or performing a live concert so far trumps any recorded performance, and the imperfection of the unprofessional recording is always a source of frustration for me, personally. So, I find myself like an addict, trying to figure out when I can play my next concert, and diving into new repertoire the day after a concert in order to prepare for even more concerts, never being content to play the same pieces too many times, but always searching to learn and play more music. I used to think music was like a religion, but now I think it is more like a religion AND a drug...and once hooked, you cannot escape it. Even those who do give up playing an instrument, never really lose the appreciation that they have for music. Once the taste for classical music is acquired, you cannot get rid of it! And this is why music education at the very earliest ages is so critical to insuring the future of classical music. Our lives are ephemeral, just like music, and when we realize that we are here on earth for a tiny, tiny spec of time, music somehow helps us relate to and reflect upon our own immortality, and appreciate our lives that much more. This is the aspect of music which is not quantifiable, nor analyzable. Yes, we can all have tunes stuck in our head, but the actual experience of the "sound of music" exists only in time and cannot last forever. It fades away, just as a drug leaves our body and is processed by our liver and kidneys, music will pass through our ears to our brain, to our hearts, and eventually disappear, leaving us desperate for our next "fix". But, somehow, I believe every experience and exposure to music changes us fundamentally and positively. So whoever thinks that classical music or any type of music will "die", is dead wrong...We all NEED music to survive on this planet, and we all have our unique preferences of what seems most pleasing to our ears. Therefore, with this in mind, I invite my friends, family and fans to come HEAR me in concert at the Harris Theater, Chicago, making my debut with The Chicago Philharmonic. www.roboticinstitutue.org

Mother's Day Musings

Some of my fans may find it interesting that in the early stages of my career, one of my mentors strongly advised me against getting married. When I announced that I was going to marry my classmate from the Yale School of Music, Steven Greene, a fellow pianist, she said, "Well, Ok, if you must....But just don't have any children". Such was the philosophy of the older generation about the sacrifices necessary to build and sustain a concert career. And at the time I didn't realize that she only offered me this advice because she believed so strongly in my talent; in my early 20's I was still insecure about my abilities and my potential, but winning some competitions, of course, helped considerably. However, in my typical fashion, determined to prove everyone wrong- I decided to to have children (not just one or two, but three!) at a relatively young age, and somehow was able to keep my career going throughout my 30's. What I can say now about Motherhood is that it changes a person in so many ways- and no matter that it may be the most difficult job a person could have- it is also one of the most rewarding. The depth of feeling and emotions one develops from raising children, teaching them, and imparting upon them all your of your knowledge, wisdom and love cannot be found any other way. And while it can make the pursuit of a concert career, or any career, that much more difficult, the enrichment it provides only serves to enhance one's creative powers. For me, being a Mother has made me a better person and a better musician than I otherwise would have been, even if it has diminished or slowed down the achievement of "success" that I might have had in my performing career had I not had any children. Mostly this is due to public perception, however. A public that thinks that women cannot "have it all". The silent discrimination, rivalry, jealousy that follows almost all successful women is only magnified if one tries to have children as well. The "Mommy Track" is a dreaded career path for many aspiring women who worked so hard to achieve so much, only to discover that their efforts will never be rewarded as those of their male counterparts. Today, on Mother's Day, I applaud all Mother's, and especially those who have, out of choice or necessity, also pursued professional careers of their own. In my own case, the musical successes of all three of my children has served to be not only a source of pride for me, but also as proof that my unfailing devotion to and passion for music has inevitably influenced and inspired them to study music and become musicians as well. There is no better compliment than having one's own children follow in one's footsteps! And as a teacher, I often feel the very same way about my students- they are my "musical children" as well, and I am always so proud of their accomplishments! Lastly, I want to make mention of the fact that in recent years, I have had the privilege of a wonderful mentor and friend here in Chicago: Mary Sauer, who is the Principal Pianist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Faculty Advisor at New Music School where I am on Faculty. She, too, is a Mother, teacher and performer. She served for over 30 years on the Faculty at DePaul University and has served as the Principal Pianist for the CSO for over 52 years- a most distinguished career and a most distinctive musician. Mary Sauer is one of the women I admire who has successfully managed to combine marriage, family, and a performing and teaching career, and she has served as a relatively recent inspiration for me to continue the pursuit of my performing career, and to fulfill my dreams. On this Mother's Day, I want to extend my thanks and appreciation to Mary Sauer.

Music Hath Charms...

Music Hath Charms To Calm the Savage Beast... and more! Over the years I have come to realize firsthand that animals really like music...a lot more that the "experts" say they do. One article I read recently said that dogs do not appreciate music the same way humans do, because they hear sounds at different frequencies than the music we listen to. Well, I beg to differ. Because, now I am owner of my second dog ( in my adulthood), and both of my dogs, Chopin and Clara, without exception, seem to favor being right near the piano when I practice. Even if their bed is more comfy, they seem to really enjoy being close to the music. In addition, the wild fauna outside seem to come around with great frequency, even more so when I open up the doors and windows....When I was younger, living in my first apartment and preparing for my Carnegie Recital Hall Solo Debut, I hung a potted plant outside on my terrace. When I went to water it, lo, and behold, there was a birds nest in it. A couple of weeks later, I took it down to water it again, and (behold!), there were several little blue eggs in it. And then shortly thereafter, the little baby birds were hatched and they started singing, too! And I was able to watch them learn to fly right from my living room window! What an inspiration, I must say! Now, as I am preparing the Schubert Trout Quinet for a May 19th concert- all the high notes and trills seem to be attracting a ton of songbirds right to my backyard! ( Who needs a bird feeder?!) When I practice they chirp and sing, and when I stop, they stop! It's really kind of amazing! You see, even before there were composers, there were birds, and trees, and rivers, and there is a music in the natural sounds of our earth! If only we would take time to listen to the ubiquitous symphony going on all around us! What a joy to listen to! The "sound of silence" is actually not so silent afterall!