07 June 2010

Interview with Sophia Ahmad

This is the eleventh interview of the ”Where are we now?” series. Please take a look at the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series. Please leave your thoughts in the comment box at the end of this posting.

IA: Please tell us about yourself. In what media do you create or perform? Do you also teach? Are you also a student? Please talk about yourself as an “artist,” student of the arts, and teacher of the arts.

SA: I'm the online entertainment reporter for The Des Moines Register and serve on the piano faculty at the Des Moines Symphony Academy. Here is a link to my blog. I would say I'm both a teacher and student of the arts. I teach music, write about music and the arts. I am a student because I'm always learning.

IA: As an entertainment reporter you write about music, film, theatre, food, and local events. Would you list for us the names of entertainers you have interviewed? I’ve been looking at your photos on facebook and on your blog; you get to meet a lot of really cool people!

SA: Yes, that’s one of the perks of the job. I think I was a little star-struck at first, but now—it’s hard to get to know those people, so the interviews are not as fascinating as those with local people who maybe aren’t as reserved. I can get to know the local people a little bit better. They’re more interesting and give more in-depth answers. So some of the people I’ve interviewed:
Terry Hatcher was probably the most recent. She’s an actress; “Desperate Housewives” is probably what she’s best known for.
This spring I did the Register’s first facebook interview with the pianist Christopher O’Reilly.
I also interviewed Kevin Costner,
Jonny Buckland (who’s the guitarist for Coldplay),
Dolly Parton;
I met Kelly Clarkson when I covered her concert;
Joy Behar (she’s the co-host of The View);
Jane Pauley;
I interviewed Helen Hunt,
Diane Keaton,
author Liz Gilbert (her book Eat, Pray, Loveis being made into a movie with Julia Roberts).

Note by IA: here are other people Sophia has met and/or interviewed: Maggie Grace, Luke Perry, Cloris Leachman, Victoria Rowell, Mark Ballas, Shawn Johnson, Mike Butterworth and Jason Walsmith of The Nadas, Shane Tallant, and Curtis Stone.

IA: So this is from all different fields: actors, musicians…

SA: Yes, people from all different walks of life: entertainers.

IA: When you interview them, are you asking them about specific movies and concerts and books, or are you asking them about their personal lives? What do you tend to ask them about?

SA: It’s a little of both. But all the people I’ve ever talked to have some kind of connection to Des Moines or they’re coming to Des Moines for an event because we cover things that are specific to our area. I mostly ask them things pertaining to Des Moines, and also if they have a new book or a new project or a new album coming out I’ll ask them about those things pertinent to their lives.

IA: So have you seen enough people in any one field yet that you think you can make a generalization? What are the kinds of music, what are the kinds of trends in film or in acting? What is going on in music today? What techniques, topics, methods, and moods are musicians using? In other words, can you describe the current era of music the way you could describe, say, the Baroque if I asked you to? Have you seen enough people yet in any one or two of those fields that you want to comment on that?

SA: Yes. Well, I think it’s hard to say. I’ve been at the Register for three years now, almost to the day, and even from the beginning the things that have most impressed me have been about how entertainers are forced to be more transparent because of the social media world that we live in. Whether it is by a camera phone or a voice recorder that someone could easily use to post audio or video online, these people seem more accessible. For example, I covered a Miley Cyrus concert and she had had a twitter following; she closed it a week before she came to Des Moines for a performance. I was getting a lot of material and information on her just by things she was saying about herself on that social networking site. She made a rap video about why she closed her twitter account. She made it in Des Moines and that will give insight into her character and it shows how new media, such as video—she can tell a lot about herself that way. There’s a lot of ways for people to express themselves now. And especially with the paparazzi; they have ways to combat it if they’re caught off guard doing something, they could post on their facebook page or twitter account something to defend themselves. Apart from the traditional publicist or that kind of model.

IA: So they’re much more directly connected to their audiences and their fan base? They have more connections to a larger number of fans.

SA: They’re able to be very personal with their fans. I covered a Taylor Swift show. She was kind of the same way. She was probably the best example of interacting with her fans. She is doing a 13 hour meet and greet which is something that’s kind of unheard of, a kind of interesting interaction.

IA: It seems that you’re describing that the technology is reflexive; not only does the technology change the way they interact, but then they can turn that technology around and use the technology as either a topic in their art or as a way of promoting or of a way of discussing it; the technology then goes back into their arts, as well.

SA: Yes, there are examples of that. I covered a Black-Eyed Peas show and Will.I.Am, who is a rapper, used text messages that people sent, live during the show, and he made them into a rap, he improvised it into a rap. I thought that was really kind of slick to do that! I was really impressed with it. The show was just too much; but that definitely was the highlight of the show.

IA: That’s a brilliant twist on the king giving Bach the theme to improvise a six-part fugue on!

SA: Yeah. And there’s a YouTube video of Lang-Lang, the pianist. He took his iPad on stage for an encore and there’s some sort of app, some sort of website or something that will play “Flight of the Bumblebee” for you. The tempo depends on how fast you touch the iPad with your fingers. So he did that, and he kind of stopped and started it, stopped and started it on stage during his encore. I think that is very relevant to show this hot item at a classical performance on stage.

IA: Is there anything else you can tell us about the current state of the arts?

SA: I read and recommend Greg Sandow's blog - he has a realistic view of classical music's place in society now. The bad news: It's not as popular as it used to be. The good news: There are musicians who know this and are finding new ways to get the music out there.

IA: Where do you think are we going in the future?

SA: I don't think promoting classical music is going to get any easier. I recently interviewed pianist/ "From the Top" host Christopher O'Riley, who wrote this:
"Much has been thought and written about the change of place in society occupied by Classical music. A civilization used to be judged by the pinnacles of culture which were celebrated and nurtured within society's confines. Now it seems that there's a more mercenary attitude: If skiing is Denver's #1 'cultural' asset, what would they want with a symphony orchestra? And why would a community ill-informed of the music be necessarily dunned by what appears to be an elitist and exclusivist art form? The answer is that people are inundated and enslaved by musical forms that pervade popular media, and no strides are made toward the pursuit of quality or excellence. Immediate gratification would never have brought forth Beethoven's 9th, but kids are constantly brow-beaten into believing that all good things come immediately for no effort.
Meanwhile, even kids who have no plan on continuing in music have been shown, in blessed circumstances, that a community of one's peers, in an orchestra, chorus, a string quartet, a marching band, can be a vehicle for maturation, for inspiration, for spiritual uplift, that transcends any discussion of elitism. One wouldn't call Roger Federer an elitist, but he does represent and perform for us in a way that makes us realize the power of the pursuit of excellence, the passion inherent in performance on a high level. this is where music performance should be headed, and luckily, From The Top is a perfect vehicle for the public at large to get to know performers as people just like us, only different, and his in turn gives the uninitiated audience the idea that music, most particularly Classical music, can be fun as well as inspirational."

IA: It is getting harder and harder to promote Classical music today? Why do you think that is? If it is such great music, what is it so hard to promote it?

SA: Well, that’s the million dollar question. I think if we can get all the information we need just by googling something, without even walking over to the bookshelf and pulling down an encyclopedia, or even going to the library and looking through a card catalog -- we’re taught with these new technologies that we don’t have to work to get complicated information. We can have everything at our fingertips. Whereas, if I had to type out every article I ever wrote on a typewriter, if I made a mistake I would have to start over: I would be more conscious as a speller and I would probably respect that process a lot more. I wouldn’t feel so bad if it took me a month or two to learn a Beethoven sonata. But if I think that everything should come quickly, then it’s hard to carry that over into other areas. I don’t think it’s necessarily recent. In the 20th century there were the minimalists in the visual arts whose works were simplified: big color blocks on the canvas as opposed to very detailed art works. I’m not saying it’s bad; a lot of the artists were trained in the classical way; they had to know the rules to break them. And I feel like it’s not expected that kids know these rules before they have to break them. I don’t think it’s just limited to classical music. For some of my young piano students, school is a shock to them because it’s six or seven hours of learning and it is probably harder for kids now than it ever has been.

IA: So it has to do with the amount of time it takes, number one to learn a classical piece, but also number two to sit and listen to it and to appreciate it and to develop the taste for it?

SA: I think so. Classical music is more complicated to listen to [than popular music.] Themes aren’t always simple: there’s not just a melody and a bass line, there’s counterpoint, there’s counter melodies, there’s tenor melodies. In how many pop concerts do you have a hundred plus musicians playing at once -- unless there’s an orchestra there playing with them? Just by its nature it’s more complicated. It’s not elitist to say that: it’s just the way it is. The harmonies are just more complicated, too. It takes more of yourself to listen to it and understand it.

IA: In addition to bringing one’s iPad on stage and playing it there, what other ways are musicians trying to increase the popularity of classical music? What methods are they using to try to integrate it with contemporary life?

SA: As a teacher, I think for me, if kids can experience the joy of working hard toward a goal, they can really appreciate classical music and the time that it takes. Someone isn’t just going to come out playing a big Prokofiev piece, but I think it starts with small steps and then they’re encouraged to keep working and working at things and if everything comes to be they’ll be more and more encouraged to play classical music and take on harder pieces. Teaching kids that things come to people who try and don’t give up. Even a week or two off, you can see the detriment of it weeks and weeks down the road, especially in the learning stages You just have to be consistent with practicing.

There are also a lot of crossover artists and alternative classical artists: Time For Three is a trio who plays bluegrass and classical. There are different ways to whet people’s appetite for more by programming these musicians into concert series so it’s not so much of a shock to the system for those in the audience who aren’t used to classical music. Programming is a big part of it.

To me the most powerful thing to do is to show that classical musicians are real people and the people who wrote these pieces were real people. It seems so abstract in a way because the composers were trying to write down sound on paper. It’s like trying to shove a pasta dish into a cookbook. You can’t really do it. I think once children and young adults are learning, they can tap into their imagination. You kind of can get to the point where they can get beyond the notes and get to the character and meaning of a piece; then it becomes so full of life and so full of meaning. And it’s beautiful.

IA: Very well said. That sounds like the same challenge I face in trying to teach poetry to children. Poetry is a complex language that takes time to appreciate, to listen to, to read, and to learn to write in all the forms. Do you want to say anything about your own performances? About yourself as a pianist and the techniques that you learned as a student?

SA: As a music teacher, I feel that performing is very vital to the way I teach. Not all piano teachers perform, but my most influential music mentors and teachers were always first-rate performers. Playing for other people is very necessary to being an effective teacher because it comes from the old adage: Practice what you preach. As a teacher I tap into that so much so that if a kid doesn’t understand a certain passage I know how to respond to it because I have played it before or I can play it or I can demonstrate for them. That’s not to say that my technique is going to work exactly for that kid, but there is a solution out there. Also, there’s a lot that goes into performance. Half the battle is just getting into the mindset of it. There’s no real way to teach other people how to do it unless you’ve done it yourself. There’s nothing else like it.

IA: I think it’s also just avoiding hypocrisy! I get so frustrated when I meet creative writing teachers who don’t write! How can you teach other people how to write short stories when you have never tried it? How can you tell them to get up at a poetry reading and read a poem if you’ve never written one yourself?

SA: It keeps you sharp. It sharpens your tools and makes you aware of things. It reminds you of things you’ve practiced and things you need to remind your students to practice.

IA: It keeps you as an artist or musician, too, and not “just” a teacher; you get the pleasure of the music as well. You’re not just channeling it along to the next generation, but you are training them to appreciate it and keep writing it and keep playing it.

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