Choosing Music Purposefully

[NOTE: If you are a theater company considering producing The Music Lesson, we are happy to offer our complete sfx CD for a modest fee. Please leave your contact information in the comments section below, and we will contact you immediately.]


The playwright helpfully suggested music for the various moments on stage which required it, but since I (the director) am also a piano teacher, choosing piano music was a pleasure, and allowed me to revisit some of my favorites from my own student days. However, unlike Irena–who believes that Bach should be the foundation of any student’s repertoire–I have not played or taught a great deal of Bach. But since it was important to the script, I knew I would need to make carefully appropriate selections.

One challenge of selecting piano music was that music serves several purposes in the script: it reflects the skill level of the character playing at that moment, her emotions at the time, and the mood of the scene. All this, plus it must be an appropriate length—generally, the shorter the better. The audience has not come to see a concert, after all! (The other challenge was that it all needed to be music I could play with little or no rehearsal, and record myself on my own keyboard.)

In one case, a prelude is played badly by Kat (Rebekah Fodrey) during a long lesson sequence, then played well later. But since the “good” version is also an underscore for an emotional monologue by Maja, I chose to play that version in an un-Bach-like style: very sustained, with pedal, because it must nearly disappear under Maja’s words. The original version was spare and percussive and intruded on the scene.

Another critical piece of music is the piano/violin duet which is a central part of the lessons.  The suggested piece is a Bach C Major Prelude No. 1 from the Well-Tempered Clavier, which is partnered with “Ave Maria”.  I assume that the playwright chose these partner melodies because the prelude is a very simple piano piece, suitable for the student who plays it. It is also lovely as the accompaniment to the gorgeous “Ave Maria” melody played on violin.

But there are several problems with this selection.  First, the piano prelude is a bit monotonous to be used as many times as it is called for. Second, Charles Gounod wrote the “Ave Maria” for cello (specifically to go with this Bach prelude)…137 years later after Bach’s composition. Third, Irena sings to comfort Maja during a bombing, (“We have Bach, and we will sing until they stop.”)  What she sings is supposed to morph into Eddie’s violin lesson, so they need to be the same melody…and the Ave Maria is not Bach. Finally, this duet also serves as the polished piece that Kat and Eddie play at the end of the drama. But besides the foregoing, it is also rather long to play in its entirety without feeling anticlimactic, and it is not possible to excerpt.

The solution to all these concerns, I found, was to substitute an abridged version of the main theme from Bach’s chorale, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” arranged for piano and violin. Since it includes lyrics for a simple melody, as well as a more complex accompaniment, it was a good choice. In Eddie’s first lesson, he is working on the melody; in the second act, he is playing the more complex part. Kat plays the simple chordal melody with him, which includes brief solo sections…nice, and also believable that she could learn it in one day.

[There is an inside joke in that choice, though it was not intentional:  the last time we used that piece, it was an important part of a play called Miracles (2011), about an autistic girl. At the end of the drama she plays part of “Jesu, Joy…” on the piano. Bekah Fodrey, who plays Kat, also played the girl in Miracles. Guess what Bekah is doing at the end of The Music Lesson?  Yup. Ironic. ]

Other piano pieces you will hear:  part of Bach’s Musette in D Major, his little prelude in D minor, another prelude in C Major, as well as fragments of:  Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, Chopin’s Prelude No. 5 in A minor and Handel’s “Sarabande”. Irena and Ivan play a piano/violin duet version of the main theme from Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 (“From the New World”), second movement. [Several of these pieces can be found in the John Thompson method books, and this nod to piano students of my generation is another inside joke of sorts.]

Special thanks to Ben Steiner, who spent an hour one Saturday playing several fragments over and over again, in order to get the timing exactly right. Later on, we combined two of his recordings into a duet! Also thanks to Matt Cwanek, who engineered that session.

The genius behind it all, Scott Kump, took my digital piano recordings, the violin recordings, sounds of warfare, and a digital metronome, and put everything together in its finished form through the magic of digital technology.

The piano in our production is center-stage, straddling the worlds of Pittsburgh and Sarajevo, reality and memory. Since we assume that the piano the Batonovic couple acquires is not a good instrument, I used a sound on my keyboard called “Honky-Tonk”–a jangly bright sound, not quite out of tune, but grating. When the piano is played in memory, it is a mellow grand sound. [The one exception is the final phrase of the play…the music segues from the Bosnian folk song back to “Jesu, Joy…” I hated to end the play with that jangling sound, so I kept the more mellow tones for the play’s final moment.]


Some Background on the Conflict in Bosnia

I asserted in a previous post that The Music Lesson is not a play about the Bosnian civil war, per se. It is about humans dealing with intense conflict, the effects of such trauma on children, and the sustaining power of beauty, purpose and human contact to bring healing.

However, a secondary benefit of producing this play has been to heighten the cast and crew’s awareness of the tragic events of this war, and to bring home to us a deeper appreciation for all that is being suffered currently in places like Ukraine, the Middle East and North Africa. Americans, long insulated against the horrors of war on our soil, have difficulty in imagining what it is like to live in the midst of such a crisis. I hope that this play will engender a new empathy in our audiences for those living under siege.


I wish there were an easy way to summarize the civil war which took place in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. The conflict between ethnic Serbians, Croatians and Bosniaks is an ancient one, made infinitely more complicated by centuries of intermarriage.  This map of Yugoslavia in 1991 shows the states into which the country was already divided:

Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia 1991

That same year, Slovenia and Croatia seceded from Yugoslavia, and multi-ethnic Bosnia-Herzegovina published a referendum for independence. Bosnian Serbs rejected the proposal, wishing instead to create new states which were ethnically pure. The play makes several references to the fact that much of the Bosnian population was ethnically mixed and had neither the desire nor the ability to separate along strictly ethnic lines. [NOTE: The ethnic groups referred to throughout the play are Serbs (Orthodox), Croats (Catholic) and Muslims (aka Bosniaks).]

Irena Batonovic, in the play, sums up the conflict this way:

“Justice, people say, look what they did to us. As far back as we can remember, they are enemy, we never forgive them, we bomb them, shoot them, starve them and make sure we kill their children, so hatred never die.”

The primary war event to which the play refers is the Siege of Sarajevo–“the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare” (Wikipedia). It took place between April 1992 and February 1996 (1,425 days total). Throughout the play, Irena has flashbacks to moments with her student, Maja, during the siege. Ivan also describes hiding in the basement during bombings, and the couple relive one such time together.

Cellist of SarajevoOne excellent work of literature depicting the siege is the novel, The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway, available in our Allen County Public Library. It is based loosely on the actions of a musician in 1992, who sat in a public square and played the Albinoni Adagio every day for 22 days, to honor 22 people killed by a grenade while waiting in line for bread. Achingly beautiful prose describes in horrific detail the realities of daily life in a city under siege.


Zlata's DiaryTo gain a fuller picture of the experiences of children at that time, read Zlata’s Diary, a Child’s Life in Sarajevo, by Zlata Filipovic. This little book was almost certainly part of the source material used in writing this play. Both Shannon, who plays Maja, and I read it in preparation for rehearsal.



Production Challenges: Accents and Music

TML FB imageTammy Ryan’s The Music Lesson is not really a play about the Bosnian war. It’s not even really a play about music or teaching music, per se. But three of the six actors are supposed to be Bosnian natives–they even speak a number of lines in their language. And five of the actors are required to appear to be playing an instrument at least once in the course of the play. For many community theaters, these factors make producing this play a bit daunting.

Dialect Work
The playwright has included a pronunciation key in the front of the script, although this alone will not guarantee either the accent overall or the fluidity of the lines which are in Bosnian.  Our research into Eastern European dialects indicated that, for stage purposes, we could use as our guide Acting with an Accent‘s Polish dialect. This would allow our actors to have the basic characteristics of the accent (without sounding Russian, which would be wrong), and would focus on a dialect which would still produce understandable English for our Midwestern audience.

We were also fortunate to find a young woman who is a native of Bosnia-Herzogovina living in Fort Wayne! (And working for Tim’s sister!) She audio-recorded all the Bosnian phrases for us–slowly, and then fluidly, as a native would say them. I am proud of the hard work Teresa and Tim have put in to make those words sound natural coming out of their mouths!  They, plus Shannon, have spent hours mastering the uncommon dialect.

Piano and violin–music, instruments, arrangements, choices!

The playwright also provides a list of suggested music, used in the first professional production of the play, as well as an address through which one might acquire the piano/violin arrangements. She stresses, however, that the sound designer/director can make his or her own choices, “centering around Bach.” This is what we have done. (More on the actual music–of which there is a lot, and needed for very specific moments/purposes–in another post.)

The playwright states:

“The actors should not actually play instruments. In the production at Florida Stage, live musicians were upstage in a “blue room” playing piano and violin as the actors mimed playing. Once the convention was established, it worked beautifully. If you don’t have access to musicians, taped music can be used.”

We have access to musicians, and I was very intrigued by the notion of live music. However, our stage is smallish and an awkward size. Trying to keep the musicians where they can see the action without being obtrusive, and at the same time where they won’t take up too much of the playing area, was a task that began to feel impractical, even were it possible. This was because much of the music is “acted” as much as played–Eddie is a good violinist, but he’s only 10–not a prodigy. Kat is angry and difficult, and her playing often reflects that. For the actors and musicians to be so much in synch would require much more rehearsal with the musicians than we could rightly afford. Taping the music and letting the actors practice their mime at home seemed more reasonable and efficient.

Beyond the choice of music, and the difficulty of recording so much music so far in advance of the performance, there was the need to have TWO violins onstage, in the hands of non-violinists, as well as a piano which needs to be positioned in such a way that one or two actresses can sit at it and still be visible to the audience.

Again we were blessed in our contacts:  Debra and Bruce Graham, both violists with our Fort Wayne Philharmonic, attend First Missionary Church (which supports us by providing rehearsal space).  Deb secured two used violins for us to use, and Bruce came to coach Tim and Micah on how to hold the violin and the bow correctly.

The piano is supposed to be unsatisfactory to Irena. It is “out of tune” and “sounds like big elephant,” she says. Since they are refugees living in a little apartment, one must assume this is a used upright piano of some kind. Knowing the hardships surrounding the move of a real piano into the theater (we’ve done it before), I set out to solve our problem creatively.

And we have. Thanks to the ingenuity of Larry Nolan, we have a piece of furniture which looks for all the world like a piano. And our actresses will be able to pound on “it” and make noise, or mime playing while recorded music is played. I think the audience (who haven’t read this post!) will be none the wiser.

piano 1

piano 2

THE MUSIC LESSON–plot and cast list

TML FB imageIn spite of winter weather, our production of Tammy Ryan’s The Music Lesson is right on schedule.  This is a piece which has been on our “short list” for a couple of years, just waiting for the perfect time to produce it. Another area premiere, The Music Lesson is a powerful story which presents a number of unique challenges to our cast and production team.

What is the story about?  Here is our press release synopsis:

Irena Batonovic is troubled. She has escaped the horror of civil war in Sarajevo, but she can’t run away from the memories which fill her mind and prevent her from starting a new life with her husband, Ivan, in Pittsburgh, PA.

Meanwhile, Ivan meets the Johnson family in a grocery store, and invites them home. Mrs. Johnson wants violin lessons for Eddie (10) and piano lessons for Kat (15). Eddie and Kat have experienced their own form of civil war–their parents’ ugly divorce. But while Eddie is enthusiastic about resuming violin, sullen Kat wants nothing to do with the piano. Irena can’t help comparing this unhappy girl to her cheerful protégé, Maja, whom she left behind in Bosnia. What hope is there for any relationship between a teacher who can’t bear to teach and a student who refuses to learn?

Memory and reality collide in this powerful new drama about our human needs for beauty, purpose and love.

Our talented cast includes:





LORRAINE KNOX  as Mrs. Johnson


Maja and Irena at piano, Kat unenthusiastic

Maja and Irena at piano, Kat unenthusiastic

Ivan welcomes Mrs. Johnson and her kids to the Batonovic apt. for the first time.

Ivan welcomes Mrs. Johnson and her kids to the Batonovic apt. for the first time.