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FEATURE | A Piano Retreat Moves Online

By Robin Roger on July 20, 2020

Midsummer Adult Piano Retreat Reimagined Faculty Members Alison Barr, John Ferguson, Debi Adams (Photos courtesy of the artists)
Midsummer Adult Piano Retreat Reimagined Faculty Members Alison Barr, John Ferguson, Debi Adams (Photos courtesy of the artists)

From Toronto to Williamstown

In July 2014, I drove myself 675 kilometres from Toronto to Williamstown Massachusetts to attend the Midsummer Adult Piano Retreat, a week-long residential program located on the campus of Williams College. The private liberal arts college on 450 acres near Tanglewood in the Berkshires is home to a fine music school, amply supplied with pianos and practice rooms, as well as several performance venues and an especially gracious concert hall. That’s where we met for classes each day on the stage itself, alongside the concert Bosendorfer. My youthful wish to attend a small, intimate and beautiful liberal arts college, rather than the intimidating and impersonal mass of urban buildings that I had to manage when I was at University of Toronto, was finally fulfilled, albeit delayed by 40 years.

To call any kind of retreat a vacation — be it for yoga, meditation, writing or in this case, piano — might be accurate, but it would understate the value of the experience. A retreat offers a protective environment in which to develop a chosen skill, and in that respect, it can facilitate a sense of achievement, a feeling of purpose, and sometimes even be transformative. Retreats usually attract engaged participants, which in the case of the Midsummer Adult Piano Retreat, means folks who are willing to spend several hours each day alone in a practice room, aside from attending classes, piano lessons and recitals.

Practicing scales and honing repertoire isn’t everybody’s idea of fun, but in a residential context, when there is time to compare notes (pun intended), share meals, and socialize, the mutual support is encouraging and motivating. There’s no question that shared effort and shared passion cause people to bond.

An important take-away from that week for me was a dawning awareness of how embodied playing piano is. Drawing on my childhood training after a 40-year hiatus, I thought of playing as a curved finger exercise. Alexander Technique practitioner and Boston Conservatory Faculty Member Debi Adams’ daily class revealed the extent to which the whole body participates at the keyboard, causing me to recognize how much it would take for me to rid myself of injuries I’d inflicted on myself with forced hand stretching and extraneous arm muscle use.

Encouraged to give duet playing a try, I discovered that sitting shoulder to shoulder with a fellow pianist in a synchronized state is more than musically satisfying; it has an uplift that one person alone can’t produce. Being part of a musical dyad was as integrated as dancing with a partner, or volleying a tennis ball, I realized. I will return to the importance of embodiment later.

Another highlight of many from that week was the visit by the highly dynamic guest artist Lincoln Mayorga. He gave a scintillating Gershwin recital, presided over a constructive master class, shared memories of his fabled Toronto-born teacher Aube Tzerko, and most memorably, screened the heart-wrenching documentary he made about the inspiring refugee pianist, Sofia Cosma, A Suitcase Full of Chocolate.  I drove the 675 kilometres back to Toronto feeling enriched.

From Czech Republic to Williamstown via Toronto

The Retreat, which has been at Williams College since 2006, has Toronto roots. Twenty years ago, emeritus psychology professor and music aficionado Harry Hurwitz (1923-2018) sought the advice of Peter Kristian Mose, a Toronto-based music educator and piano teacher, on developing a piano master class to add to the conducting workshops he had established in Kromeriz, Czech Republic. Mose suggested that it be for amateurs of all levels, with no audition or performance requirement.

While participants have voluntary opportunities to perform, the lessons are private, and the focus is on learning and moving forward from whatever level each participant happens to be at. This makes for a more diverse group of more relaxed participants than are often found at programs aimed at advanced amateurs. A major outcome of this is non-competitive approach is an extremely devoted coterie of return participants, many of who had already sent in their deposit for the 2020 Retreat when COVID threw its future into doubt.

From Williamstown to Cyberspace

I was intrigued in May when the Retreat announced that it was going forward in a virtual format. By then I had grown accustomed to Zoom piano lessons, birthday parties, Ludwig Van Editorial Meetings, and classes in the Feldenkrais Method of Somatic Education. Like everybody else, I’d begun to wonder whether I would ever see certain people in person again, including friends I’d made at the Retreat. This made the prospect of a virtual reunion all the more appealing.

I also welcomed the idea of an event that would to give some contour to the indefinitely ongoing lockdown, including the need to prepare a piece for the Zoom piano lesson. Humans are prone to completion bias, the desire to finish a task or project, and the prolonged uncertainty and monotony of the lockdown made setting a completion date seem irrelevant and even futile. When I signed up in May I relished the prospect of polishing the first movement of Mozart’s Sonata K332 by July.

So on July 5 I joined 24 amateur pianists from Toronto, New York, the Boston area, Shreveport, Houston, Washington, Ireland and Australia to launch the Midsummer Adult Piano Retreat Reimagined. As each person became visible on screen cries arose from other people who were delighted to see their musical companions. Traffic control was provided by two of the three faculty members, Allison Barr and Debi Adams, who were a bit like co-pilots in separated cockpits. The third faculty member, John Ferguson, was also on hand to welcome us.

It became apparent right away that there had been a lot of advanced preparation in order to simulate some of the features of the Williams kick-off celebration. Most ingenious were the cyber-versions of the annual duet and ensemble performances. Four participants had pre-recorded duets they had played remotely using an app called Acapella. While the duets weren’t in synch the way two people playing in real time on the same keyboard would be, it was fascinating to see close-ups of the hands on the keyboards of the primo in Boston and the secondo in Houston, meshing in cyberspace. Two sisters who are in each other’s COVID bubble were able to record separately, but on the same piano.

We started the next three days with 20 minutes of Alexander Technique and Tai Chi led by Debi Adams, who asked us to be near our pianos so we could apply the movements to playing, something we could only do because we were each in our own homes. (Later in a separate class, Debi also taught us some restful eye techniques that make looking at scores easier.) This was followed by a morning lecture or presentation lasting until lunchtime, after which a five-hour break allowed time for private lessons with the faculty or practicing before we met up again at five for another activity, which would end in time for dinner. The rhythm of the day was very similar to the campus schedule.

A medley of platforms, programs, and equipment was required to facilitate various parts of the program. For the simulated master class, the performers pre-recorded their pieces on their own pianos in advance and sent them to Scott Donald, the guest artist, to review and prepare comments. These recorded performances were then played for the class on Zoom, and the scores were e-mailed to each of us so we could read the music as we watched the performance. After that, the student and Scott interacted on Zoom, between Scott’s studio and their home while we observed on our screens. The entire group was brought into the discussion with questions posed by Scott, with our observations being moderated by one of the teachers at the controls in their home in New England. On top of that, the ‘chat’ feature on Zoom allowed folks to send little notes back and forth at the same time.

Scott Donald gave a recital from his studio in Austin Texas, called Les Nouveux Jeunes: A New Aesthetic for the Modern Age, featuring pieces by “Les Six” plus Erik Satie. The link for this live stream performance via YouTube was sent to us ten minutes before it began, so we were each in front of our devices waiting with bated breath for the program to go live. At the appointed moment, Scott appeared on our screens and spoke to us from an empty studio before going to the keyboard. He seemed rather formal speaking into the cyberspace void, so I was surprised after the recital, when we moved back onto Zoom for a live interaction with Scott, that he was a lively and gregarious fellow with infectious enthusiasm.

Moving between all these platforms was sometimes discombobulating. I had to order an external microphone for my laptop computer to facilitate the piano lesson, and then learn how to adjust the audio settings to use it on Zoom, which is far from an intuitive experience. At times I was dashing from device to device, adjusting the camera, the lighting, the video and audio settings, occasionally referring back and forth between my laptop and my desktop computer. Multiply that by 25 relatively low-tech participants and the results can be comical. One participant called me on my cell phone during one of the events to help him get onto Zoom, so I was talking on the phone, scanning the Zoom instructions on my e-mail, and interacting with the class on Zoom simultaneously. It felt like being in a sit-com.

Reduced from a week at Williamstown to three days plus one evening in cyberspace, the Retreat closing ceremony seemed to come too soon. Each student offered a farewell comment, with the predominate sentiment being gratitude to Debi, Alison and John for providing a virtual alternative instead of just cancelling it and joy at being able to still share the camaraderie that they treasure. Acknowledging that meeting in person would have been better, everyone felt uplifted. If there was any dissatisfaction it was with Zoom and the limits of cyberspace. This might have been related to the sophistication of the student, the quality of their equipment and the intrusiveness of their cats. One bracingly frank participant who was especially frustrated by Zoom said the experience was, “like margarine instead of butter or non-alcoholic champagne. There’s no buzz.”

Photo by Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas from Pexels
Photo by Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas from Pexels

From Embodied to Disembodied

It’s precisely the missing buzz that is important to understand. For years now I have been telling anyone who will listen that virtual reality is not reality. If we referred to this non-corporeal, on-screen experience we all share as simulated reality, or pale-imitation reality or something more technical like “screen-projected representation” we would remain more conscious of how unlike reality electronic experience is. The impoverished quality of this ersatz simulacrum needs to be held in mind so that we don’t deceive ourselves that it is adequate and begin to accept it as the real thing. In fact, we must acknowledge that it has very real deleterious effects on the human system. Without getting too clinical, there is no substitute for full-bodied human proximity. The multi-sensory stimulation activates a suite of essential sensory reactions and interactions, referred to in mental health lingo as “interpersonal neurobiology”.

So it is not a comment on the caliber of MAPR-Reimagined to say that a virtual retreat is simply not a retreat. The experience of relocating my body from my own surroundings and adjusting to a different one, interacting with a new and different group of bodies, and ceasing from routine physical activities such as cooking or desk work is critical to giving a retreat its power. While I did what I could to avoid toggling back and forth between the Retreat and the outside world by deferring tasks until the end of each day, organizing my meals in advance, and committing the afternoon breaks to practicing, I was still in my regular surroundings with the usual intrusions.

Debi Adams, Alison Barr and John Ferguson, the trio who are faculty and organizers of the Retreat understood all this when they decided to move on-line, hence the descriptor “Reimagined” after Midsummer Adult Piano Retreat. As Alison explained to me, “We made the decision to do this even before Williams announced that it wouldn’t be open this summer. We didn’t want to even put our students in the position of having to decide to make a risky trip. We all three somehow sensed that we should keep the momentum going if at all possible, and that people might be disappointed and sad with nothing at all.”

Having all pivoted to teaching piano lessons and classes on line, they were aware of many technical issues, including eye fatigue and diminished sound quality. “We redesigned the format and class offerings to decrease the emphasis on ensemble playing and musical interaction.  We just knew that would not be successful,” Adams recalls.

They were also concerned that there would be, “ample time for interaction to the extent possible so that people didn’t feel like they were just staring at a screen,” according to John Ferguson. They posed questions to the group before and during their presentations, built in moments when students contributed to their classes in their own voices, and a created break-out rooms for us to speak in smaller groups. This doesn’t exactly simulate a normal group process, but it demanded my attention, which easily wanders during Zoom gatherings. They also created an extensive pre-Retreat packet loaded with links, questions, conversation prompts, and listening guides for the recital and the master class so people would already be involved musically before the program began, as well as a very detailed technical guide explaining speakers, microphones, head phones, audio settings, adapters and more. Considerable behind the scenes effort was put into live streaming the recital, which was a first for all concerned, and there were back-up videos to play should there be some problem with screen sharing or loss of a component of the program. Short of creating holograms or avatars of all of us, they did as much as could possibly be done.

If it was margarine, it was the highest quality margarine available.

From Disembodied to Semi-Embodied

But it would be more accurate to say that it was a hybrid spread — more flavourful and nourishing than margarine even if it wasn’t as rich as butter — for a few reasons. First, it wasn’t completely disembodied. Each of us personally participated with our entire beings, however singularly. I really did do Tai Chi every morning, and I really did stumble through the first movement of K332 for Debi, complete with plenty of somatic symptoms I would have had in person, including elevated heart rate and rapid, shallow breath because of completely unnecessary nerves. That Debi could evaluate my playing as acutely as if we were together was apparent in the details of articulation and phrasing she noticed, and some really fine nuances she worked on with me. When we tried some preliminary warm-up work, Debi was able to comment on the pace of my breathing, and the softening of wrist tension, so precisely that I felt like she wasn’t on a screen, she was using x-ray vision from her studio in Brookline. Now, as I try to integrate the changes Debi recommended, she is as present in my mind as much as she would have been if I’d had a lesson with her in person.

I also felt connections forming with other students I’ve never met off-screen. During a brief break-out discussion, a student told me she is learning Regret, one of my favourite Mendelssohn Songs Without Words, and it sparked a desire to track her progress and to put that song on my wish list. One of the master class participants, after giving a fine performance of Oblivion by Piazzola, mentioned that he’d been working on it for at least two years, and now he comes to mind when I feel that I’m not mastering K332 fast enough. If I’m emulating the patience of someone I only met on screen, something real must have happened.

Finally, most of the participants brought longstanding affectionate feelings towards each other from many years of meeting at Williams. The possible cancellation of their annual reunion and the virtual rescue of it made it that much more meaningful in the context of the pandemic. “It really felt like we were together again,” Adams said. Events that convert well from embodied to virtual reality are those that draw on prior attachments. I’ve been on Zoom screens with previously unknown acquaintances, and it is feels strained and weirdly false, as if I’m giving a performance of being Robin Roger.

We don’t know how long restricted socializing in some form or other will be part of our lives so cyberspace gatherings could continue indefinitely. Already there are some hybrid events with in-person attendance and virtual attendance taking place. Debi Adams will give that possibility some thought. “Alison, John and I will take a break, then we will dream about next year and the possibilities that might emerge from this year’s experience,” she told me. Given how imaginative they were this year, they are sure to come up with something highly adaptive going forward.

Buzz Skill

One skill that was unexpectedly asked of me was the one that was the most fun to master. I had to learn how to mix myself a Quarantini. We were sent two recipes for cocktails to be prepared for our Zoom farewell event.

Searching in vain for a cocktail shaker, but finding the martini glass, I concocted my first ever vodka martini —stirred but not shaken — which I raised in unison with my far-flung fellow pianists in a toast to the Retreat, to each other, to our teachers and to music. It was the perfect way to burst the virtual bubble before disconnecting to return to my personal COVID bubble.

And it delivered a genuine buzz.


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Robin Roger
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