Interview with Liz Kohl
Liz Kohl is a Portland pianist, music instructor, and yoga instructor in Portland, Oregon. She and I met a couple years back at a music event hosted by a local organization called Classical Revolution, not long after I moved to the area. Since then, she and I have performed a number of times at concerts she has hosted in her house, as well as at PSU for their lunch hour recital series. I am honored to say that she has also premiered a number of my own compositions, as well.
The following interview was recorded on June 14th, 2020, and has been edited for clarity. Her website is linked at the bottom. I have also embedded the video of our interview for posterity.
Liz Kohl: Oh, hello! [Holding a teapot]
Adam Eason: Well, thanks for coming by, Liz.
Liz Kohl: Oh my gosh, so much tea. [Spilling the teapot]
Adam Eason: More tea than you even know what to do with! Have you ever been interviewed before?
Liz Kohl: Like outside of a job? I actually used to be the interviewing manager for Hoffman Academy, I was in charge of the hiring process and I actually was the mentor to other people who are hiring. So I love to interview and be interviewed. I think the last thing I did was more of a panel discussion at PSU, which felt like, I don't know. I felt like the questions were so broad because I have such strong feelings about the term classical music. And so did the two people I was working with. Honestly, I don't think I said anything very intelligent. At least it got published.
Adam Eason: Yeah, well, I imagine that with a panel, it's probably even harder because you're trying to juggle between the different people and...
Liz Kohl: It was fun to hang out with them. But I also felt like, too, both of these women had so much more experience than me. They're both closer in age to my mom that I already felt like a little munchkin.
Adam Eason: Yeah, kind of intimidating. Well, in this case, hopefully this is more comfortable. It's just you and me. We're about the same age. Yeah, I think a good place to start... I was curious because we actually seem to have a similar family situation in relation to music. Neither of your parents are really, musicians? I think your dad plays keyboard, right?
Liz Kohl: My dad actually has a masters degree in Piano performance.
Adam Eason: That's... OK. Well, never mind.
Liz Kohl: I would say that at this point, music is... I would say it's a staple in their lives. Like my dad's volunteering all the time for Portland Piano Company and chamber music Northwest. Like he's... They're such an interesting pair because they're kind of that total opposite, like he's so classical steeped. And my mom is 70s funk, she's the cool kind of hippie. And he's the nerdy classical pianist. So, yeah, I would say all members of my immediate family have at some point, if not currently, made their money from music. My mom will defy that she is not a musician, but she has an amazing voice. She harmonizes super well and she did get paid to sing in a band when she lived in Mexico. But she's the only one who's not musically trained. Everybody else. Me, my sister, my dad all have degrees in music. My dad and I both have masters.
Adam Eason: Gotcha. What was it like growing up with that kind of dichotomy in the house?
Liz Kohl: I feel like it was always kind of surprising what my mom was into because I think I've always been so nerdy. And part of that was whenever I would hang out with my dad, we'd listen to the old classical station and he'd be like, "Name that instrument!" Like we played guessing games. So I wasn't a cool kid. I feel that I am more savvy and pop culture now. Part of that, too, was I was raised fairly conservative, so there was some music I just straight up didn't listen to. If it had bad language or was suggestive or whatever. And yeah, I just feel like music was always such a part of my household that it didn't feel weird, or at least I didn't feel too weird. Probably my sweetest memory of like my family and music was the three of us singing. My dad maybe would be helping sweep or taking out trash, but we'd all do dishes and sing three part harmony. My coolest memories is doing dishes and singing with my sister and my mom.
Adam Eason: So I imagine they started you with lessons pretty early then.
Liz Kohl: No.
Adam Eason: No?
Liz Kohl: The weird thing is that I think that I knew when I was five, I felt it in my soul and like, I'm gonna be a pianist. I just knew it. I think I did like a couple lessons with my dad. It was very cute. But, you know, if it's your child, you're not going to prioritize that. And he wasn't teaching piano at that point. He was doing his full time work as a project manager, systems analyst, whatever he was doing at that point. And so I didn't start lessons until I was like eleven, almost twelve.
Adam Eason: That's pretty late in the classical world.
Liz Kohl: Incredibly late. Oh, my gosh. Everyone I told in music school, like, I just always felt like a little bit of an underdog. When I eventually got into my real piano studio, it was crazy how much harder I had to work because all the five year olds were better than me. And so I was fighting against that. So I feel like a lot of what inspired me was my stubbornness to be like, “No, I'm going to do this.”
Adam Eason: Yeah. That makes sense. I mean, I kind of have a similar experience because I started in junior high with cello. Probably about the same age. And then you get to college and it's just like... You realize that those first 10 years were all spent by everybody else staying inside and playing music, basically.
Liz Kohl: I didn't know that about you, actually.
Adam Eason: Yeah. I was a late starter as well. I mean, it's because there was a sort of required arts elective credit that you had to take. And I ended up in orchestra.
Liz Kohl: Wow. Did you not start with private lessons, then?
Adam Eason: I think I started taking private lessons probably at the halfway point between the first year. But I started with the school orchestra program. Well, we've got that in common. Who did you start lessons with at that age and what was that experience like?
Liz Kohl: So, I'm not going to count a couple of lessons with my dad. It was a handful and I remember the cute little notebook. I would say that of the two of my parents, my mom is more the go getter. So she just went out, found a piano teacher. And she was a nice, sweet neighborhood piano teacher lady. She wasn't, like, great. She wasn't horrible. I don't know if it's pretentious or just awareness of what I knew I wanted. But in our first lesson, I remember her talking like, "Oh, yeah, maybe someday you'll play Beethoven sonatas." Of course I'm going to play Beethoven. And I wanted to be like, "Lady. Of course I'm going to do that." I felt not well-placed with that studio. So that first six months to a year, it was very much not the appropriate fit for what I wanted. And then my dad called around some of his contacts from California, from schools he'd gone to, and he found this kind of other worldly piano studio. I'm still like friends with the people in that piano studio because it was such an immersive experience. Like...
Adam Eason: Who was that?
Liz Kohl: Oh, yeah. So her name. Oh, the first lady. I don't want to say her name because I feel [what I'm] saying isn't super positive. And I also don't think she's a big deal in the musical world. She was just very casually teaching. My teacher growing up, my real teacher was Joanna Hodges, and she was an internationally known concert pianist who toured Europe, I think she was one of the first women to tour Europe. She was in the who's who of music. She at one point had an international piano competition in her name. At the Soviet Union, when she went to go and play, she played for I think Kabalevsky and maybe Khatchatourian, like ridiculous [names] that I'm like, "But I've played these people!" So she was a big deal. In that studio was like, there was her and then she had an associate teacher where you had to get to a certain level of proficiency before you could even take from her [Joanna]. So it was like a little dynasty. Not really, but yeah.
So she had workshops every month that were required for you to attend. They were long. There was first the associate teachers students and then hers, and you had to play from memory. Didn't know when you were going. You just knew that it was going to go by era. And we did a concerto every year, no matter your age, at least one movement. We did... you were required to go to a certain number of concerts outside of yours. We had recitals at the end of the year. Everyone did one. So for maybe a month and a half this woman... How amazing is she? She opened up her home that she converted into like a performance space, she had a stage built. She had two concert grands put together. She had a reception hall at the back that was added under her house. We did a talent show around Christmas, and the only requirement is it couldn't be piano. And we had an awards recital. I mean, she gave away cash prizes at the awards recital and, yeah, we were all required to do a 10 piece program every year. Every era of classical music: Baroque, classical, romantic and 20th century. And yeah, it was the same level of rigor that you would kind of expect from a college education.
Adam Eason: Yeah, that sounds pretty much like music school. During that, as an 11, 13 year old, whatever, did you have any sense of how extraordinary that was or... Yeah. Even then it was pretty obvious?
Liz Kohl: It was like hollowed ground to be there. She had a very Asian household. She's not Asian herself, but primarily the students were Asian. A few were Russian. But honestly, I was the minority, not being Asian, especially in her studio. There was a big divide between, her associate studio. So a lot of people who were of Asian descent, but in her studio, it was a only a few white people.
So you would walk in without your shoes, you weren't allowed to wear shoes in the house. There would just be like a hundred shoes outside of the front, there's a koi pond in a long driveway. And yeah, it was just very, very magical. And I think I cried out of happiness when my parents told me that I had been promoted because I was with her other associate teachers for probably three years, actually.
I think we got in the car and they were like they had smirks on their faces. But they're like, "So Lizzie, you're not gonna be doing hour lessons anymore." And I was like, "What?" "Yeah, you're gonna do half hour lessons." And I was like, "What!?" "Like, yeah. With Joanna." And I was like, "Oh my gosh!" I think my dad may have asked, which, you know... But she was just this celebrity. That's what it felt like in the beginning, and then it became actually really cool. I'm sorry. I'm, like, thinking about her now. She passed away a couple years ago and I was at the celebration of her life. And yeah, it was super weird. Like, I got to teach some of her students when she was in the hospital and not doing well. And even after college when I was a year between undergrad and grad school, I took lessons from her and we had like such a sweet friendship, like there was no fearful respect. It was just like we were talking like people. And she'd also actually converted to Christianity. So we had this whole other side to our relationship. I'm like, oh, wow, this is something I can talk about with you. And she maybe took it in a slightly different direction, like it was a little more intense.
Adam Eason: But I mean, she sounds like just an intense person in general.
Liz Kohl: Yes. She was just straight up learning Russian like in the last year or two of her life. Because she was going to a Russian church.
Adam Eason: Yeah, that's some dedication. What were some of the biggest things that have carried over from your lessons then to now?
Liz Kohl: I mean, the biggest thing is that in my studio, the only like picture I have, outside of a few others of me and students that my boss got me when I left Hoffman Academy, is a picture of me and her because she is my greatest inspiration. She was my original teacher. I loved my other two teachers. One of them honestly feels like a peer to me because she is maybe 10 years older than me, but she lives around the corner in Southeast Portland. Amazing pianist. But yeah, I feel like with Joanna there was so much about the way that she had presence and commanded respect, even though there's a lot about her that was kind of frail. But she held herself so well and she was always interested in doing the best you possibly could, being OK with uncomfortable emotions. Like, I remember crying in a lesson, and she was kind of like, "Yeah, of course. Cry. That's [normal]." And the fact that she was wanting to grow as a person and wanting to learn about everything and she wasn't just obsessed with piano. I mean, she was. But, yeah, just so much of my education as a pianist comes from her. So she's my little... I'll look at that picture of me and her and that inspires a lot of my teaching.
Adam Eason: I know from working with you that you have a deep interest in performing new music. And I actually I actually did a little bit of Googling around for Joanna Hodges. And it sounds like... I mean, she had you said she had a 20th century literature requirement?
Liz Kohl: Yes.
Adam Eason: For that (sic) her students and I found an old New York Times review where she was playing a new work by Hovhaness, one of his piano sonatas, I think. And I was wondering if that interest in playing new music came from her or if that was something that was already kind of there and she just nurtured it.
Liz Kohl: It honestly was probably nurtured by her. And then it got really exciting and real when I went to college because I got to premiere a work of my friend who was a composer. And that was just so crazy to me that I'm like, "You wrote this. No one's ever played it. No one's ever heard it." Like, that was like an honor. But Johanna, man, she had the weirdest... She had weird scores that she would like to bust out. And she, as a kid, had like a a breakdown and stood up for herself at some crazy age, like seven. She told her parents, like, "I can't be a jazz pianist and a classical pianist, I have to pick one." She was performing on the radio and all kinds of crazy things. I remember her saying that her Carnegie Hall debut, her encore, she improvised her encore. And the reporter said, oh, it was some obscure Kabalevsky there. They did not do a good job reporting that she straight-up improvised her [encore].
She was really passionate, even though she was really there was a lot old school about her. A lot of people hate hearing this, but she loved Brahms. And it was like an honor to play Brahms. And she hated Debussy and thought it was trash to the point that she say, "Sasha, my dog could play Debussy," and like, no one would play it. So she had very strong and some old school opinions, but she would play weird stuff. And she had a composer friend who wrote a little concertino because everyone was required to play one. And I still have that score. And it's just like hand written. And it's very fun. So I think there was probably some like like, oh, this is normal and you should be doing this from her. But yeah, I still remember the first piece I played, the Washington... Washington.... The "Scion of the Washington Elm" was a piano solo by my friend Michelle.
Adam Eason: Was that at University of Washington?
Liz Kohl: Mm hmm. Yeah.
Adam Eason: Let me try and get the geography straight. So as a kid, you grew up where?
Liz Kohl: I was born in San Francisco. We moved to Vancouver, Washington, when I was three. That's where I grew up in her studio and I went to Clark College when I was 16 and did Running Start, got an associate's degree. And then I went up to University of Washington. When I was like 19 years.
Adam Eason: And you didn't just do music, though. I noticed you have a minor in dance.
Liz Kohl: Yes. I felt cool in the dance world as a musician, and I felt cool in the musician world as a dancer. So, yeah, at that point, because I had a degree already, I had almost no non-major classes, which was really nice. So my main focus, I mean all of my classes were like music. I think I took like maybe a year of French and like a philosophy class and otherwise it was just dance and music.
Adam Eason: So you're... You were doing dance... In addition to an intense piano studio experience with an internationally renowned [pianist]
Liz Kohl: [laughs] Yes. Not as intensely. And there was a point where I feel like ballet got kind of replaced with piano because some part of me wanted to be a ballerina. And I was like, "Well, my feet, my hips are saying piano.".
Adam Eason: Yeah. All right. That's fair.
Liz Kohl: Yeah, but I love ballet. I did ballet for a surprising amount of time for the fact that I don't feel I look like a ballerina. I'm not like slender. I'm not like a tiny little ballerina. But, yeah, I loved, I loved dance. I've never stopped loving it. And I also was... I was less involved, but my family was actually really involved with a theater group growing up. And that was a huge part of my life. But I was the nerd who's like, "No, I'm not going to hang out. I need to go practice piano." Like, I was like the not cool [kid]...
I also grew up playing soccer. I grew up, like, being very involved in a church group called Oanna, like I did a lot. Growing up, I it doesn't surprise me that that has spilled over into my adult life, that I fill my time with activities.
Adam Eason: I've done a good amount of work with dancers at Southern Methodist University. They have a really strong dance program there. And just working with them, they definitely have a different sense of... How music is, I think, for lack of a better way of putting it. I'm not a dancer, but working with them, I could definitely tell they were coming at it from a different place. How does that dance experience inform your playing? Or understanding of music just in general?
Liz Kohl: I think the way it impacts me more is that I thought about was what I was going to write my master's thesis on was dance and music. And I actually did a pretty like bold Liz kind of move where I went to the dance department at U Dub, which is amazing. And I know SMU is really great. And, U of O, that was one place I actually applied and got in for my undergrad and my masters and I'm like, maybe I'll go for my doctorate. Like third time's the charm. And yet it was always kind of my desire to be around dancers or maybe still dancing. So we had live dance accompaniment for all of our dance classes. Ballet, modern... Didn't matter. It was so cool.
So the head of that, the music of the dance department, I went to him and was like, "Hey, can I just, like, shadow you and get credit for it? And just like create a credit?" And he was like, "Yeah, but you can't play from notated music. You have to improvise." And that was like at the time... Right now? Like improvising? That sounds great. At that time, little Liz who had almost no experience with anything, and I was still a very insecure pianist because everyone had like 10 years on me, it felt like... That was scary, but very fun. So I would say the biggest way dance impacted me as a pianist was that started to open up my world in terms of improvising.
Liz Kohl: I definitely like to move with music. I definitely will find myself like moving my arms a lot, especially in graceful ways. But the ways in which it impacts me... They just always been so tied. Yeah, it's been like dance, music, they go together, and sometimes I do... All of my students, actually. There's a little piece by Gurlitt called Dance and it's like [sings melody]. And the left hand's like, [sings waltz accompaniment]. No matter what I teach every student when they learn that piece a waltz step. OK? The stress of one, two, three. One, two, three. So there are little things like that. But I'm not nerdy enough to go through all the jig and courante and Sarabande. I don't know those dances in Bach suites because I'm not interested. I would say that's maybe the main way that it impacts me. But yeah, I'm more visual than I am even auditory. Yeah.
Adam Eason: No, I get that because, like, when I compose part of how I know I'm done... Like there is a way a score looks. A finished score just looks like it's done. So I understand that side very much. Especially because like instrumental music, it's mostly like... You have an orchestra program or whatever you're learning notation. Right. And that's just how you learn music.
So. I'm trying to remember. So you went to the University of Washington and then you went to Baylor. Yeah. And after having been on the West Coast for your entire life... I've been to Baylor. I can only imagine that was a culture shock.
Liz Kohl: I did a study abroad in my undergrad and went to Paris for a month and traveled a little bit in Europe. I was the first person in my family off the continent. So that was really cool for me. I was way more culture shocked going to Texas.
Adam Eason: Yeah, I can see that.
Liz Kohl: Especially because everyone's like, "Well, yeah! It's America." And like, "Oh, yeah, it's all the same!" And in the master's program, I feel like a third of the people were not from Texas. A third were. I was used to being a minority, like not being Asian in a music school. I was like, "Where all the Asian people in this school?" Like, there were almost none! A lot more people were from Latin America because that made sense, like geographically. So, you know, my friends were now all from like Venezuela, Colombia and Costa Rica. And so I'd say the weirdest thing was when people would tell people from other countries, my friends would tell me, “Oh, America's like, doo doo doo doo doo. Like, these things.” And I'm like, “No, it is not. That is Texas. I have lived in America my whole life. That's not what it's like where I come from.”
Adam Eason: Do you have any specific examples you're comfortable sharing or...
Liz Kohl: I think the main thing that stood out to me was... maybe two things. So the fact that I put on makeup, that's just me wanting to look good over Zoom. But I went into living in Texas with the idea that I don't want to change who I am. I'm a bit of a hippie. I just kind of want to defy fitting in because I want to be myself. I almost feel like I played up like, "Oh, I am so like granola. What a crunchy hippie I am!" Even though back home, people think I'm like, you know, I'm not a hippie. So that was one thing that I didn't want, to start wearing more makeup. I still wore mascara, maybe lip gloss. And I didn't want to up that.
The other thing was that I feel like... I feel like sometimes the Northwest can be a little bit passive aggressive culturally, but also especially in Portland, there is this sense that we kind of love this customer service that's not fake, sweet, I'm putting on this face for you of happiness. But, if someone's having a crummy day, you might kind of feel it from them or they might not try to hide it at all. They're just like, "Life sucks and like, here's your coffee, bye." And I kind of like that because it's so honest. And so I really value directness. And it felt a little crummy that I would have people sometimes treat me in a certain way publicly, but find out like, oh, that person is like talking smack about me behind my back. Not that I don't think that happens here. I'm sure people talk about each other behind their backs all the time. But there's not a facade of saccharin ultra, like, "Oh, aren't you great!" Like, there was just a bit of that.
And I don't know... Because I know a lot of people from Texas at this point. I think it may have been specific to the culture that I was in in Waco and Baylor. This wasn't everybody like. I met a lot of people that I'm still friends with and love. Trying not to diss Texas. I'm not saying it's Texas, but some of that culture of ultra sweet to disguise things you don't like was not pleasant to me. I'm, like, be mad at me, if you're mad at me. I don't want to question who actually likes me. Is that like your experience at all from Texas to here? I mean your culture shock.
Adam Eason: It's a little bit odd for me because I grew up in Houston. Well, let me qualify that. I grew up in Katy, which is technically part of the greater Houston area, but is its own place. But my parents are very cosmopolitan people, and Katy is one of the whitest places on Earth, I think. So growing up there, there is always a sense of not quite fitting. But Houston itself is, I mean, it's an oil town. So people from all over the world are coming in. And I know a number of people are like, "You're from Texas? You don't have an accent!" I'm like, "No, I'm from Houston." And that's why I don't have an accent, because it all kind of blends.
So I think actually coming from Houston to here wasn't as big of a culture shift in a lot of ways, at least downtown Houston has a lot of just... A lot of everything. It Is a lot more of a mix than maybe people realize. But Dallas is definitely a different world. Yes. And especially going to SMU like which is just plopped right in the richest part of the city and not realizing how big of a bubble that was until remembering like, "Oh, right. Walking around Waco is not a great idea." Depending on what time of day it is. And having that very... It's very fashion centric and very material centric, I think. And then coming to Portland, which is fashion centric in kind of a different way. Yeah, Dallas to Portland would have been pretty seismic, but Houston to Portland. Not not as much so.
And you got your masters in both pedagogy and performance. Was that like a combined degree?
Liz Kohl: Yeah, it was. I was very specifically looking for programs where I wasn't going to cease being a pianist because I was still... I don't wanna say it's a fear. It's just something I always want to be aware of. I never want to be someone who's only teaching because I know, for me, I am less inspired by people who aren't still doing their craft, [only] teaching. It's been difficult during this quarantine and I've realized it that I'm not performing and during my teaching, I'll even have moments of jealousy of like, “I want to be playing the piano right now. You get to play the piano.”
Yeah. I took a long time and I looked at, I think, every pedagogy program in the world. And SMU was actually one of the top... It probably was in my top 10 or something. And I eliminated... I'd like narrowed it down, and I ended up applying to U of O, because I was very interested and I applied to TCU and Baylor. And it was very nice that, like, I got into all of them, but that didn't matter to me. I didn't feel like it was worth it to go into debt. So it was the choice for me, for sure. But it was funny because I actually spent a lot of time at TCU, they took us out to lunch and went to a recital of someone's. But I realized once I got there because they have the... Oh. Oh, I'm embarrassed for blanking on it. It's a huge international piano competition. Oh, what is his name... Van Cliburn. Oh, my gosh. Take out all the pauses.
Liz Kohl: But because of that, there were so many people there for an artist diploma that I was only guaranteed as a pedagogy major, it was something ridiculous, like two or three hours a day was I guaranteed that I would have a practice room. I thought [are] you lying to me? It wasn't like I got to choose or just be like, these are your hours practice. I'm like, oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. That is not the way I roll. So I was like, I think that they're more trying to bring up piano teachers than pianists who teach.
Adam Eason: Right.
Adam Eason: Gotcha.
Liz Kohl: So I spent very little time at Baylor and I just knew that that was probably where I was going to go. My pedagogy advisor has actually just come out with a book called Yoga in the Music Studio like she was a yoga instructor. I was like a model in her first book that had a chapter about yoga. So it was clearly the right place for me.
Adam Eason: Yeah, I was actually going to ask about that because you do a lot of yoga lessons here in Portland, and that's dance adjacent.
Liz Kohl: Yes.
Adam Eason: But I also kind of get the sense that musician overall wellness is super important and that yoga is like an expression of that.
Liz Kohl: Yeah.
Adam Eason: When did that start becoming like its own concrete thing? Like joining wellness with musicianship?
Liz Kohl: That's actually a really cool history in my own life to think about, looking back on it. My first class I took, my first yoga class, was at a community college when I was, like, 16. And this lady, she was an odd duck and I loved her. Looking back on it, she was doing all these really cool things with approaching yoga more holistically. Like she started one class, she just had a peach. And she said nothing. We just all, like, came in. We're sitting in like a gym. And she just, like, starts eating it like, like just crazy, slobbering, stuff was falling down her face. And she was like, this is how you should treat life, like, just enjoy it. That was something that was her message, or that's my take away from it. So I took a yoga class. Then I took in, at U Dub when I was in the dance department, I took Vinyasa for dancers. And Vinyasa is to flow. And that's the kind of yoga that I that I'm certified in and teach. And oh, it was so beautiful to watch this. One of my dance instructors I'll totally namedrop: Catherine Cabeen. I mean she's like one of those beautiful dancers I've ever seen. I was so lucky to get to study with her.
And she was very gracious in the way that she presented yoga, because I knew that she and I probably philosophically disagreed about a lot of things. But she created such an open kind of space for everyone to approach yoga with whatever they believed. So that was kind of my like, “Oh, yeah, I'm into yoga.” And I would try other studios and I tried hot yoga. And then I really did go to Baylor with the thought that, oh, my thesis is gonna be about movement and music, probably ballet. And then I started seeing more and more my students who were non-piano majors, but some of them were music majors. Some of them were outside the music school, but they were playing at pretty high levels. And I'm shocked at how much, like, tension was in the shoulders and the elbows. Just everything held to the point that I'm like, I can't even deal with this [gestures at hands] if everything else is tight. So I would like take them away from the piano, do some, like, light stretches, yoga. So it was kind of becoming more and more apparent to me that we needed to rework some of the larger muscles first.
So midway through my masters, when I came home to Portland for the summer, I got certified to be a yoga instructor and I knew that I had the power to do whatever I wanted with my private students at Baylor. So my advisor, Leslie McAllister, was like, anything you put your syllabus your students have to do, you totally have power to do what every whatever you think will benefit them. I was like, I'm going to require them all to take some kind of yoga or awareness class and it doesn't have to be mine. But I started offering free yoga classes and I made them reflect on how it changed or didn't change. And that's included in my thesis. Some of their reflections inspired some of them. It was really helpful. I hope for all of them.
But I think there's a lot to be said for the way that our bodies and minds and even our sense of who we are in the world and the universe, like our spirituality, our religious beliefs, how that impacts us as people and how that impacts our music as music creators or even as music appreciators. I don't know anyone who hasn't had a spiritual experience listening to music. I don't know those people. Like, even if you're not a musician, I feel like everyone at some point has been like, "And there was this amazing piece of music. And I just like 'ahhh'..." So that's what I'm always trying to work more towards is thinking about how does this impact our mind or bodies? How does art and even just our beliefs affect where our mind is when we're practicing? I'm very curious about like like neuroscience, as well. Like, if I were to go back and get a degree, it'd probably be in... Oh, well, it could be anything. There are a lot of things that interest me.
Adam Eason: One of the other things that has come up a number of times, playing with you and performing with you has been your dedication to bringing women composers into performance and into concert halls and... I don't know. I feel like... That you and I like started college around a time when women in classical music just started to thaw. Like, it feels really weird saying that because you think, well, I mean, music's been around a long time. But do you feel like that's an accurate assessment on my part?
Liz Kohl: Oh, absolutely, yeah. And I think to the fact that, outside of one teacher I had for a few months, all of my teachers growing up. All of them have been women. And I was thinking about it because I knew you were going to ask me about being a woman in the classical music world and some part of me was like, I don't have any horrible, negative stories. But I know all the implicit things, even like a sweet older maestro who's like commenting on my appearance in a kind of a skeezy way or reading about somebody who makes a comment about, you know, "Well, of course, a conductor can't be a woman because that's distracting," and... Yeah, I really was trying to think through... I'm like, have I ever been affected? I know there's been like micro things that I could point to, but I'm very lucky in that I grew up in a time where I didn't feel that directly. [Not having to] stand up for myself as a woman in the classical musical world.
Adam Eason: I know that, you know, being in Portland, it might seem like a sort of stereotypical thing, though. Like, "Oh, yeah. So, you know, feminism in music, of course, important." But I mean, you've done work... I'm sorry. I'm blanking on her last name. Becca, the singer?
Liz Kohl: Yes. Stuhlbarg.
Adam Eason: Who is very much like, that seems to be her primary angle is representation of women in music. What has it been like working with her? I know you've become very close friends, too.
Liz Kohl: Yeah. I would say we kind of had this immediate connection and kind of like, how did we not know each other? Because she does vocal yoga and I do yoga for musicians. So title of the house show she did recently was "Homemaking for Feminists" or "Feminist Homemaking". Something like that was the title. Very cute. And cute in that it was it was playing up this sweetness. It was nothing negative about homemaking. They all wore aprons at some point during the show. I was playing on one of Becca's songs, and then we had another pianist who was a woman. So everyone performing was a woman. But I think too, she's also very much in the queer world, so not only uplifting female composers, but queer composers.
What was cool was the way there was an interplay of some male composers with female themes, and then a lot of female composers and getting to hear a little bit of the history of their lives. I think it's the same way we're feeling right now, really strongly, the need to historically know about what has happened to people who are black in America. It feels like a similar thing with Becca's vision, at least from my perspective, that there's gonna be a little storytelling and a little bit of like, "Hey, here's what was happening in this woman's life when she was writing this piece." And here's the history of, you know... My mom grew up in San Francisco, my actual mom, and she's my mom, like, that's one generation. And she was living in a liberal place, going to public school. And when she was growing up, she couldn't wear pants to school as a girl. Like that feels like, I don't know, something out of a movie that's not real.
So I think it's more that knowledge and in some ways just appreciation of the fact that you were so good about finding a female composer for us to play. It's like, “Oh, Amy Beach! Yeah! I don't know this woman. Like, I love this woman. She's great.” I love that some of the people I work with at PSU who are like my colleagues are revolutionaries in Portland and probably on a much bigger scale as female composers, Crazy Jane [an all female composer group in Portland]. I feel like there are just so many options of seeing women led, black led, queer led music in Portland. So, yeah, I don't know, some part of me just feels like, oh, I'm a woman. I want to make sure I'm representing at least every program I do to hopefully have a female composer, even if it's just like "It's me!"
Adam Eason: Yeah, for sure. And it can be... That's something that I've been bumping up against. Like the historical representation is hard to puncture, right? Because like first you have to find them, which can be a little bit tricky if they're not Amy Beach. And then once you have found them, that doesn't necessarily mean that their scores are readily available. I think that's been the biggest thing for me is finding a name and going, "This person actually seems pretty interesting." And then, like, where is their music? It's nowhere. I mean, obviously, it must be somewhere, but it's not like in the public record in the way like Bach is. Yeah. So still a lot of work to do on that front.
Liz Kohl: I read... I don't know if it was All Classical or maybe a more national organization put together a list of like 10 black composers you should know. And I listen to someone and thought, "Ooh! This piece is really cool. I'm interested in this." And then I went into “Where to find the [sheet] music?”
That feels like a bummer because it feels like... I'm so glad they wrote that. But it also feels like, OK, so the work is half done then. Exposure, but no possibility for the experience. I like that you brought that up because there's all kinds of things to think about, there's all kinds of layers when it comes to people who are underrepresented in certain areas.
Adam Eason: We're coming up on an hour, so we should probably wrap this up, but you've started composing recently for the first time. You have like. Two or three compositions?
Liz Kohl: So right now as we speak, music videos of my compositions are being edited by my filmmaker housemate and very dear friend. I actually have... I think we did nine or ten recordings of my originals. I do have a couple more originals, primarily for students, like one is about finger numbers, the Finger Number Song. One is Ode to the Tritone. One is Snowy Day Blues. They're all shorter pieces. But yeah, I realized when I started compiling things that I'm like, “Oh, I've actually been composing my whole life.” But very like just kind of like a little thing here, a little thing there. But some of my compositions go back almost twelve years? Like one here, one there.
But I'm actually going to launch a Kickstarter in the next couple of days to start selling like these books of them, because I also do arrangements for my own students of classical pieces. You know, some that are written not for piano or some that are written for way too hard of a piano part for a student to do. So I would say I already have multiple pieces close to done and I'm already planning for the next time that I record them, which is scary and intimidating, especially to speak to a composer who is like this is your... I don't want to say this is your life, because your life has many different parts that I think of you so much as a composer.
Adam Eason: I wouldn't feel I wouldn't feel too bad about that. I didn't complete an actual composition until a couple years after graduating from college. I think I had one composition that I wrote in college. And I did take a semester's worth of composition lessons from Dr. Kevin Hanlon. But yeah, I was there for cello and I knew that I wanted to compose, but fitting that into my life and figuring out how to do it or that kind of tricky.
Liz Kohl: So how do you do it now? Like, you teach, which, I don't know if it's more or less exhausting for you depending on your workload. But when I do in-person piano lessons, I'm not super exhausted as an extrovert. I still feel I almost have more energy sometimes when I get done teaching. So what is your balance like?
Liz Kohl: Can I interview you?
Adam Eason: Sure, if you'd like to.
Liz Kohl: Oh yeah, of course I do. I have a lot of composer questions, especially now. And I am trying to talk to all my friends who are composers. I'm considering taking lessons in composition. Do you know Stephen Lewis?
Adam Eason: Oh yes.
Liz Kohl: We met up and chatted and I was like, hey, I'm potentially interested in learning from you. And then I just straight up have a friend. I don't know if you know Nicholas Emerson?
Adam Eason: No.
Liz Kohl: He just had his his piano trio premiered at Fear No Music, and it was like his therapy going through PTSD in the military. So we're doing a trade for his feedback for me, teaching his son piano. And by the way, when I met him, he was my students. Yeah. He was a piano student.
Adam Eason: Oh, OK. I see. Yeah. These worlds are colliding.
Liz Kohl: Yeah. Really weird worlds. I've wanted to talk to you about composing, but I'm just so grateful, I want this to be part of the interview, I'm so grateful that you and I have worked together. You're my most like... I don't want to say most beloved, because I'm sure a lot of people are loved in my house show series, but my mom always talks about how amazing you are, how talented you are. And I just can't believe how much mutual respect and pouring out of of effort I feel like there is in each of us for each other. The fact that you wrote Suites for each season for my house show series just is like the biggest honor, like that first composition I ever got to play. It was like this huge honor that my friend wanted me to play her piano solo. It's a huge honor that you did this to support and love me.
Adam Eason: Awesome. I mean, it is a pleasure. And I felt like it was something I mean, like... Those house concerts were among the first concerts that I played here. So I felt I should write something for us kind of in honor of that. So I'm glad to hear that things have meshed well.
Liz Kohl: It sounds like it was intended to be awesome.
Adam Eason: Yeah! Well, I guess we'll wrap this up then. Any questions you wish I asked? For another interview sometime.
Liz Kohl: You asked great questions. I love that you did any reading about me. That's the funniest part. I mean, as someone who's done a lot of interviews, it's hilarious to me when I would have someone come in for an interview... Many of them haven't even been to our web site. Like, we had a full web site! I figured there were things you knew about me and things you really didn't know about me, because I don't tend to talk about my background in a lot of detail with people because I'm too busy talking. Like, I just want to talk with people. I'm like, enough about me. So, yeah. Thanks for giving me the chance to just chatter away about my life.
Adam Eason: Of course! Thanks for joining me. I appreciate it.
Liz's Website: http://lizkohlpianist.com/
- Hits: 7
The Art of Lazy
Is it possible to start with a digression? Sure, whatever. Lets do this.
I always scratch my head when I hear people complain about scientists doing research and then concluding “the obvious.” It's like these people don't know what science is. You don't know something is obvious until it has been confirmed, yo. How many times have scientists made startling discoveries that upended what we thought was obvious? I don't know the actual number, but I'm pretty sure it is “lots.”
Digression over! Speaking of the obvious, I have been wondering over some received wisdom. It goes like this: “Practice everyday. Are you practicing? No. Is it a day? Yes. Then why aren't you practicing?”
Why aren't I practicing? Maybe because, possibly, practicing every day isn't the best way to do learn something. Do I know it isn't the best way to learn an instrument? No. Is mayonnaise an instrument? That depends on how much you practice with it. Horseradish, however, is most certainly not an instrument. Get that wanna be poser outta here.
Bear with me. I may not know that practicing everyday is not the best way to use your time, but I have a suspicion. And I would like it tested. Here is how my suspicion goes.
First! Let us say you are training for a marathon. What do? You start by running not a lot, you start by running a little. And then? And then you rest. And then you run a little again, and then you rest, and then you run a little more, and then you rest, and then... No 'and then!'
I mean, there's more 'and then.' You 'and then' until you've run a marathon. But the key here is, you regularly rest your muscles as part of the training. If you don't rest your muscles, you can do some serious harm. You rest or you run until you're forced to rest. Given a choice, I would rather just rest, thank you very much.
*two hours later*
SECOND! Have you ever been working on a problem and got stuck? The answer is yes. We all have come across problems we've got stuck on. You know what usually happens? You work on the problem until you get a nose bleed. Then you give up and go do something productive like play Farmville. Then you go to sleep. Then you wake up the next day and BAM! All of a sudden you wonder why you were having trouble with your problem. It's so obvious! How did I not see that before?!
Turns out, this happens a lot in music practice, too. A particular passage, for whatever reason, just seems intractable. Then you go to sleep, wake up the next morning refreshed, and you find the passage has become tracted. Good job brain! But I've noticed that giving yourself distance from even pieces you “know” helps.
Third! This doesn't have to do with learning so much as balance. There's more to life than music. In fact, I wonder if our musicianing is in fact hampered if you don't have a life outside of it. I once read that Stravinsky, Poulenc, and some other musical cats got into a giant drunken pillow fight at a soiree. Arnold Schoenberg played tennis. Mendelssohn traveled. A lot. Mozart partied all the damn time. And yet, somehow, they all managed to produce masterpieces, this despite wasting their time doing so many non-musical things. How 'bout that.
In any case, I'm not making any definite conclusions. I'm just sayin'. There's a physical aspect to music, and we know that physical rest is important, especially for injury prevention (Leon Fleisher is out there somewhere, finding himself nodding in agreement, to what he does not know, but he knows it is important). There's also a mental aspect to music, and we know that rest is often a crucial part of problem solving (what, you think Newton was sciencing under the apple tree? No way. He was napping). And we know that having a social life is important for basically everything (this is more for those people who are in music school practicing 20 hours a day: seriously, go home and have a drink).
So it strikes me as not only possible, but very likely that we, as musicians, do not need to practice music everyday, and that we shouldn't feel guilty if we miss a day or two. In fact, if you do miss a day, you probably did yourself a favor. But I don't know that. I'm just pondering on something obvious that may not be as obvious as it's cracked up to be.
- Hits: 9
Playing Music is Hard
Fair warning: I am about to split a hair to make a point. It is true, splitting hairs is a past time not a few find tiresome, but considering a point is a definite space of no dimensions, I would say that a split hair is entirely too generous for the task.
Alas, it must suffice.
Speaking of tiresome things, allow me to point to the point that will point to my point. I have a general sense, as a teacher, that many people have an intuitive understanding that playing an instrument is not easy. This may seem a small thing to be irked by. And it is. But it is not the mindset that I find irksome, it is the conclusion towards which such a mindset inevitably leads.
The problem is this. Saying “Playing an instrument is not easy,” really amounts to saying almost nothing at all. Because, for sure, you have said what it is not, but neither have you said what it is. I could say, for instance, “Playing an instrument is not easy, but... it's not that difficult, either.” Such a statement is a perfectly valid statement. Hence the hair. Assuming something is “not easy” is not the same as assuming something is “difficult.”
If I return to my previous statement, now with my updated assumption, I can say “Playing an instrument is difficult, but,” but I cannot follow that but with “...it's not difficult.” I mean, I can. “It's difficult but not difficult.” There, I did it! Hooray me! If you wish to stop here, I wish you the best, but I don't have high hopes for your future prospects.
For the people who continue on because they are not satisfied by statements of utter nonsense, compare “It's difficult” to “It's not easy, but it's not difficult,” and you can see how framing the problem in the positive (it is this) as opposed to the negative (it is not that) makes for a statement rather more clear.
“So what?” cries the, I must imagine, increasingly exasperated reader, who has not yet grasped my true point because I have not yet pointed it out. “So it's difficult and not not easy. No need to be pedantic. I know what you mean!” But that, there, is precisely the point. You do not know what I mean, because if you did, you'd understand why I, as a teacher, find a student who assumes learning an instrument is merely “not easy” far more difficult to teach than a student who assumes that learning an instrument is, in fact, immensely difficult.
For you see, or are about to see after I tell you, that a student who begins with “It's not easy” can slip, with great ease, into the territory of “but it can't be that difficult.” And as soon as they make that step, and they almost all do, they have started down the path which ends with the instrument being almost impossible rather than simply difficult. Because if “it can't be that difficult,” then that means it won't take that much effort, which means I don't need to practice how my teacher says I need to practice, so I won't because what my teacher is suggesting is to put lots of effort into something which, while not easy, is surely not so difficult as to require the kind of effort my teacher is requesting of me.
That logic may sound so convoluted as to be unlikely, but it happens every time. Every. Time. To illustrate, this is a summation of every teacher-student conversation ever after the student comes to the above conclusion:
“Student, did you practice your scales?”
“Good, then this shouldn't take too long. Play a D major scale for me.”
“I'd really rather not. Lets play Beethoven, instead.”
“Ugh. Fine.” *student fails to play a D Major scale*
“Oh. Ok. Sure. Uhm. Look at this piece by Beethoven. What is its theme?”
*student shuffles uncomfortably*
“It's a SCALE. How can you play this piece by Beethoven, which is infinitely more difficult than playing a scale, if you can't play a scaaaaaaaaale?”
And then you waste an entire lesson going over D Major again because they didn't think it was that important, and they didn't think it was important because their mindset led them to believe it was not important. Because it's not easy, but it's not hard. It's just something in between. So lets cut out all the boring stuff and short cut ahead to Magical Christmas Land where everybody only eats cake and never gets diabetes and vegetables are regularly assembled to do all your math homework.
Unfortunately for them, and every teacher who teaches them, learning to play a musical instrument is not “of middling difficulty.” It is “of excruciating difficulty.” The human brain being what it is (that is to say, both lazy and full of its own self importance), anything “of excruciating difficulty” is rather inconvenient to its notion of preconceived greatness. Also, anything “of excruciating difficulty” represents a rather uncomfortable amount of work. So I sympathize. Anything “of excruciating difficulty” represents exactly the anti-thesis of what the human brain is all about.
So the brain shoots itself in its metaphorical foot. Again. Starting from “It's not easy, but it's not hard” may seem to be a better place to start, psychologically speaking, than “It's difficult,” because if it's difficult we may not ever start at all. There is some truth to that, but it comes at the price of great harm to one's future efforts. You wind up making it more difficult on yourself than it is, which is already quite difficult. So how to begin?
“It's excruciatingly difficult... but it's also possible.”
Once you reconcile yourself to the difficulty of the task, everything becomes possible. It becomes possible because you realize there are no short cuts, that, in fact, the short cuts take you the long ways around back to where you started. That if you sit down and do the work that is required of this difficult task, it is merely difficult. And once it is merely difficult, it is simply a matter of doing what needs to be done, and nothing more.
Start by doing what is necessary. Then do what is possible. And suddenly, you are doing the impossible.
--- St. Francis of Assisi
- Hits: 6
Beyond Good and Bad Musicians
At a pub with a friend. Irish folk band playing Irish folk music. Music is out of tune, the singer's tone is a warbler, the bass is out of sync with the drums, and everything about the music is objectively terrible.
Friend says, “Oh god, they are terrible.”
I says, “What are you talking about? They're awesome!”
At an open mic. Some beginners are playing beginner music. The music is out of tune, the singer's singing is swinging, the bass is trying to follow the drums but this is problematic because there aren't any drums, and everything about the music is objectively terrible.
Afterward, beginner says to me, “Oh god, I was terrible.”
I says, “What are you talking about? You were awesome!”
Let me be clear. I teach music. And when I teach music, I have to point out all of the missed notes, the wonky intonation, the miscounted beats, and all the rest of that nonsense. That's what my job is, kind of. It's just that somewhere along the way, we forget that all of that is nonsense, and we miss the point entirely.
In fact, we not only miss the point, we set ourselves on a one way track towards musical masochism.
“I'm not playing good, therefore I'm not good, and therefore I can't do other stuff good, too.”
I mean, when I put it like that, learning to play music suddenly sounds like an awful idea. “But wait!” you say, putting on your best Billy Mays impression. “I don't mean the person is bad! I mean the music is bad!”
Sure, but here's language being tricky again. If that's really what you mean, then why don't you say what you mean rather than hope people guess you mean what you mean. The music is awful. But we don't say, “Wow, this music is terrible.” We say, “Wow, they're bad,” or, “This composer is terrible,” or “What a shitty band!” We rarely talk about the music. We talk about the people making it.
The most common musical critique is not a musical criticism, but a moral one.
Step back a bit. If I'm paying some of my hard earned money to hear someone play music, I would rather the music be something well done than poorly performed. I get that. But that's not what I'm talking about, straw man. You and your head full of straw... no wonder you get so confused.
No, what I'm talking about is something more fundamental. Which is music, which was around for a really long time before money stepped into the picture. “How is it,” I think to myself, “that such a natural human expression as music, sung to babies, played at dances, in farm fields, in churches, on pirate boats... How is it that such musical expression has become an indictment of a person's character rather than a person's ability? Oh right, Plato.”
Actually, I don't think it's Plato's fault. I'm pretty sure he was just clearly expressing a sentiment that was widely intuited. That is to say, music alters behavior so music can be used to instill virtue or vice. To be doubly fair to Plato, I'm fairly certain he was also talking about what the music expresses rather than how well the music is expressed. It was all that “Darned kids, get off my lawn!” kind of stuff.
In short, there's no getting to the wherefores in a short blog post like this. But I can say it's taken a wrong turn somewhere along the line. I have had to assure not a few students that just because they are not playing good does not mean that they, too, as a person, are therefore not good. Few of them believe me. I know they don't believe me because after I reassure them, they nod their heads and then return to the music in wide-eyed terror or dismay.
So here's the problem, writ large for people who wear bifocals. Nobody starts good at anything. You have to learn. But the way we talk about “not playing well” is to instead say “you're bad at playing,” which if the human brain actually processed statements in their entirety wouldn't be so bad, but it usually just stops at “You're bad,” and then slinks off in shame.
If we follow that logic to its not at all distant conclusion, we must therefore acknowledge that not only are our children terrible, terrible, truly awful people for not knowing how to do much of anything well, but also that everybody is terrible because there's always something you're not going to be good at. In my case, I am not good at not ending sentences prepositions with.
Oops, I did it again.
- Hits: 8
I'm going to spin a riff off of yesterday's post. Yesterday was about going out to less competitive waters. Today is about something different, but related. I'm going to talk about building value.
One of the critical problems we classical musicians are facing is, people don't value our stuff. Oh, they may say they value our stuff, but similar to the way Congressional representatives will say they value education, their spending habits don't match what they claim. If we are to move forward, we will have to change people's minds about classical music, and start to build value in the eyes of our customers. We must appear to be musicians worth spending money on.
I'm not going to be shy. I play Magic the Gathering. I know, what a huge nerdy thing to do, right? Well, yes. But it's also incredibly good for your brain in so many ways. I just wish the players in general were a little more socially graceful. And bathed.
That's beside the point. The point is, players who play Magic for a living (or attempt to) talk about "getting value." What they mean is, they spend X amount of resources, and they get X+Y amount of resources back. I will grant, this is an incredibly important definition of value. I'm going to talk about it sometime. I just want to make clear: if this is your concept of value, that's not what I'm talking about at the moment.
The value I'm talking about this post is, other people view your profession as something worth spending time and money on. A plumber is valued because he knows how to fix pipes. A banker is valued because they safehold your money against theft (in theory), and provide other convenient services along the way, like loans and such. Etc. Etc. Etc. You get the idea.
Right now, us classical musicians have a bit of a problem. I talked earlier about building a new audience, as well as audience retention. What we have now is, we retain audiences fairly well. Our fans are quite dedicated and devoted, to the point where some are vociferous about classical music being "the only music worth listening to." Which is wrong, but hey, I love the enthusiasm. If we're going to build an audience, then we're going to have to build value in other people's lives. We can't just play music, we have to make our job something essential, something that can't be replaced by anything else.
Whistle While We Work
One of the first issues we need to address is the idea people have in their heads that musicians "just happen." Not that they don't think we practice. Just that they don't realize how much we practice. The problem here is one of visibility. Audiences only ever see the concerts, the end product. But unlike a regular product where people have a strong idea of "well, people put in five 9-5 days a week to produce this," they don't have as strong an idea of "those musicians practice 4 hours a day on top of 3 hour long rehearsals... plus driving time. Oh, and they teach."
This is really simple to fix. It's mostly an educational problem. The easiest way is to just acknowledge the work you put in. Another, perhaps better, way is to sell tickets to open rehearsals. That way, audience members can see first hand how work intensive a rehearsal is. Still more is to make sure music programs are available to as many students as possible, because it's one thing for a parent to be told "we put in 3-4 hours a day," and quite another for that parent to actually experience. Not that young students should put in 3-4 hours a day, not at all. Just that even listening to their kids struggle through 30 minutes of practice will help make the practice WE do that much more clearly difficult.
There's more we can do, of course, but I will stop here for now.
Till Next Week
Well, the weekend is upon us again, which means you and I will part company for two whole days. T.T In the meantime, I am going to start ending with music recommendations. Before I get to that, though, I'm going to shout-out Kristin Center's project again, because it's pretty awesome, and you should donate money to it because it's awesome. Oh, and also because if you don't, Schoenberg's Fraternity of Tonebros will know. And, just to make the threat clear, the Tonebros are a branch of the Masonites, who themselves are a large subsection of the Illuminati. Just saying, your donation is a choice, but... if you don't, we're going to have another Great Recession on our hands. Your call.
Recommendation of the Day
Disclaimer: due to copyright reasons, I will not link directly to any recording I recommend. But you have this wonderful thing called "Google." You put what you're looking for in, and what your looking for pops out. It's like magic. Or magnets. Or both.
Beethoven Cello Sonata #3, op.* 69**
Mendelssohn Songs without Words: any, but especially op.* 30
*op. is short for "opus," which means "work." Very large works like symphonies were given their own opus number. Shorter pieces were usually collected into groups, and provided an opus number for the collection. This helps differentiate between pieces of the same name, as well as giving a somewhat chronological ordering. In this case, there are 48 or so "Songs without Words," in 8 groups of 6. The opus number lets you know which your are listening to in relation to the rest.
- Hits: 5
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