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Where two or three pianists are gathered in the name of Chopin, the question is bound to formulate itself thus: 'How do you finger the double chromatic thirds in the g-sharp minor study?' That question answered, your digital politics are known.  You are classified, ranged.  If you are a heterodox you are eagerly questioned; if you follow von Bulow and stand by the Czerny fingering, you are regarded as a curiosity...

--James Huneker, Chopin: the Man and his Music
 
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archived writings on music: Part four (Feb 2012-present)
(Jan-Jul 2009) / older posts (Jul-Dec 2009) / less older posts (Jan 2010-Jan 2012) /

the most recent column is on the home page

 

5 Second Rule
posted February 26, 2013

Hello. Now that I have your attention, I'd just like to say....

Wait! Don't go!....too late!

Nuts.

Well, for anybody who stuck around long enough to read this sentence, let me just say what a pleasure it is to have you and thank you for violating the 5-second rule. It is quite an honor.

If you are scratching your head at this point I should point out that the 5-second rule as used in this blog does not refer to how long a potato chip can be on the floor before it is no longer safe to eat, it refers to how long you have to get someone's attention in today's society. I heard that somewhere, and, not unusually, I can't remember exactly where. Let's assume it holds up. There has probably been a study done on it.

This is not a rule that is particularly congenial to the goings on at Pianonoise. Most of the musicians whose music is represented here probably thought their hearers would give them more than five seconds to develop what they were saying.

A particularly good case in point is the offertory I prepared recently for church by a fellow named Jan Sweelinck. Sweelinck's piece takes me about ten minutes to play, which I presume means the world was in less of a hurry generally back then (c. 1600). If you only listened to the first five seconds of that piece you might come away thinking that Mr. Sweelinck had written a very nice test pattern. If you stay a bit longer you might realize that that test pattern is actually a very long note--the first note of the tune, actually--and soon gives way to other notes, which, eventually, make up a slowly unfolding melody, as well as a few other things.

Many a composer from the past doesn't seem to have felt the need to capture your attention right up front, and many of those composers are represented in the listening archive here at Pianonoise, particularly the section devoted to organ music. What would it be like to listen to the first five seconds of each selection alone, I wonder, deciding which pieces you would like to listen to based only on that early snippet?

I treat it like an odd thing, when, in fact, I'm sure many of you do exactly that. I can tell because of the proportion of hits to a file and amount of memory taken up by those requests. In other words, most people are clearly not listening to the entire selection. Or, more exactly, their computers are not loading the entire file, which, in the case of fast internet connections must mean some people go away in a hurry. If it isn't what you thought it would be, something you were looking for, something you'll immediately recognize, then our composer doesn't stand a chance. But even if you're here with an open mind, prepared to meet the unexpected, ready for something new (only not too new), that opening measure had better catch your attention.

Beethoven had a pretty good gift for that. It isn't just those famous first eight notes of the Fifth Symphony that I'm thinking about, either. Running through the early piano sonatas in my head (sorry, but I didn't think to record them for you) I note that the first few bars of each are filled with drama and visceral excitement. If Beethoven can't get you hooked that way, there really isn't much any mortal composer can do. Ok, there aren't any electric guitars. Sorry.

Scott Joplin wasn't bad at it, either. Unless you hear the piano and the slow tempi and decide to turn him off regardless of whether the opening motive has a catchy rhythm in there. Now that I think about it, Brahms can sometimes rise to the occasion too, in his early works. Maybe these composers were very aware of how badly they needed to impress people early in their careers. Besides, it isn't much fun to develop bad material. It just winds up boring for longer than it would be without the development. Maybe worse.

People have pointed to great literature with great opening lines which draw the reader in from the first. Some of those lines are famous--but how many of us read the rest of the book, hook or no hook? "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Ok, but why? "Call me Ishmael." Yeah, maybe we can do lunch sometime. "It was a dark and stormy night." Anybody know where that lulu came from?

Ok, so even a fascinating opening line isn't enough sometimes. It may take on a life of its own, of in the corner by itself, living its own life aloof from the rest of the book. And some of the best books don't have very memorable openings anyhow. "Happy families are all alike; unhappy families are all unhappy in their own way." Not bad, I suppose, and I can remember it. I have no memory at all for the opening of War and Peace, which I read twenty years go. I seem to recall it starting with a very long sentence, which didn't strike me as inappropriate at all under the circumstances. 1500 pages later there had been a number of great lines and memorable episodes, and some degree of slogging involved as well. But it couldn't very well announce itself in the first page. Tolstoy had something to say that took 1500 pages to say, that's all there was to it. And if you didn't slow down long enough to find that out, that was just going to be too bad. You'd never hear it.

Never mind the nature of the content: we know that activity catches the eye and the ear. Dumping people right into the maelstrom without an introduction seems to work, sometimes, unless of course you are looking for some peaceful bit of soothing noise, in which case that won't do at all. And sometimes people don't even get that far. I was a little disappointed last week when next to nobody listened to the weekly recording, which was a nice bit of flashy organ music. It had a high sugar content and a lot of flair and by putting it right there at the top of the home page for a week I was sure it would get a few listens the way all of its predecessor in that spot have fared during their time in the sun. No dice. Was it because it was organ music?

In fact, month after month the same few pieces on Pianonoise get a few thousand listens and the rest manage only a hundred at best. And usually far fewer. That's because most people don't visit the site at all. They go on MP3 finders and look for particular pieces of music. And, for some reason, my renditions of a couple of famous piano pieces seem to cut through some of the noise. No idea why. They aren't the best things on here. But that's popularity for you. And I suppose it's better than nothing. But a lot of that depends on what you make of it. I've gotten to know a lot of new pieces during my time making these recordings, a lot of rare ones, and a lot of very interesting ones. It's really opened up my world, and I'd love to be able to do the same for you.

Rhetoric
posted January 10, 2013

The first time I encountered the term "rhetoric" as applied to a piece of music was on the back of a record jacket in college. The critic referred to the "Emperor" concerto of Beethoven as a "mighty piece of rhetoric." It seemed like an odd thing to say; I might have even been slightly put out by the term. It ushers in to the field of music a great deal that many music lovers wish would be kept out. After all, rhetoric is not only something which "belongs" to the field of the written or spoken word, it is also an attempt to persuade, to argue, and thus it is not the sort of aesthetic pastime in which a thing may be appreciated for its intrinsic beauty. Instead it creates controversy, and it attempts to move outside its frame and exercise some control over the listener by demanding action. Can a piece of music change your position on gun control? Should it try?

The question itself has been debated and fought over for centuries among music lovers. Plato passed out an anecdote about how a ruler, roused by a particularly martial sounding tune on the flute, decided to go to war. This was not a song with words, mind you. It was the tune itself that did the talking. Do you suppose the story is apocryphal?

Medievals, rediscovering Plato, took the story at face value (as they did so many other things!). It became for them a measure of their inadequacy (how human). Why can't we get the same kind of results with our music? Must be something wrong with our music, they exclaimed. Especially when it was new and different, and (sigh) complicated.

But then, while some music and some musicians were apparently out to control people with the force of their--uh, rhetoric, there were others for whom music existed in some sort of untouchable realm, free from the clutter of daily life, or the messy passions of humanity. Music that was simply a joy to behold, to contemplate, to meditate on.

Sound like I'm becoming religious? Because there is definitely a connection between religious language and the vocabulary used by some to extol the virtues of music and its most expert practitioners, particularly when it is perceived as an end in itself, and needing of no apologia. Schumann, supposedly, when asked what a piece of music he had written meant, proceeded to the piano and played it again. It is pure, it is perfect, it means only itself, because to mean anything else would be to lessen it....definitely religious language.

I'm not suggesting, by the way, that attempting to get at the meaning of those organized sounds we so adore by means of another system of organized sounds is entirely adequate, or even seems to come close. Why have music if you can say it all in words? But the purists down through the centuries have been willfully ignoring a lot of evidence for the impurity of music.

One thing that strikes me is how often music has, in fighting for its existence, sought to justify itself on the basis of resemblance to other fields of endeavor, more legitimate in the eyes of those in power. You say math is important, and our kids need to get better at it while we cut our school music programs? Ah, but music IS math, and learning music will help your child excel in math. What about science? All the smart money is on new discoveries and new technology, right? Well, let me show you how music can espouse natural laws, can be architecturally sound, and can explore new worlds of the human mind. I'm not talking about 2012, either. Bach incorporated these things in his music--for which he was criticized for being unnatural, ARTificial, and unduly complex. That's the way wars of legitimacy work. While you are shoring up one side of the argument, trying to prove your worth by one means, you take fire from the other side. In this case, from the folks who want music to be mainly, if not entirely, about the emotions.

Given time, however, and a host of persons with different personalities, music has been able to become a lot of things for a lot of people. Heart on your sleeve, you want? Presenting Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky. Does his music persuade? Is it rhetoric?

What is the heart of rhetoric, anyway? Is it logic? Is it emotion? How about both?

If logic is the architectural basis for articulating anything at all, the discipline to express your thoughts in a medium that can be understood by others, than it is necessary for any piece of music to have some coherent, mindful properties. On the other hand, what is life without something to express, some passion or other?

And just like that we wander into the tricky terrain of connection--between the art, the science, the mundane, the special, the influence of countless persons and societies and civilizations, hemming us in and yet giving us freedom. The words are mine, but they are not mine. They are an inheritance from many tribes and many thought patterns that have gone before. So with music, whether people are comfortable acknowledging it or not.

It would be easier if we thought we were listening to pure Mozart. But he lived in a time and a place, and he inherited models, and ideas. It is simpler to think he invented it all, but he did not. And when it came to saying what he said in notes, was he even aware of what he was saying?

Take this simple set of variations. This is the way you are to take a tune and vary it in 1766. And Mozart learned fast. But what was he telling us as he did so? Was he telling us that there are logical, knowable ways to understand the universe? Was he telling us that there is a universal humming of the planets in unchanging harmony and that it is best reflected by choosing your key and staying in it for the duration of the piece? Was he saying that balance is tranquility and that tranquility is a symbol of (always benevolent) authority, which should not be challenged because it comes from above?

I doubt that Mozart had all this in mind when he wrote the piece. He was probably just trying to impress people and taking joy in his own inventiveness--having fun the way 10 year olds do, except not at all in the same way ten year olds do!

But he was still writing from a cultural vantage point--he was still fashioning rhetoric, whether he knew it or not. Simplify? Why, how's this for starters: One melody (paired down from a multiplicity of voices), and one predictable accompaniment? And the pattern doesn't change. And there are no minor keys to cloud our enlightenment. And no harmonic tangents to get in the way of the basic harmonic pillars that define our sense of up and down. You say they hadn't been invented yet? And besides, he was only ten? Well, partly. That doesn't explain everything, but as he got older Mozart did digress a little. It was up to Beethoven to break the mold more completely.

A product of his time, and the thoughts of those around him? Yes. We all are. And, invariably, our society produces persons who find that sort of thinking completely untenable, as if it sullies the name music, diminishes our own personalities if we admit we have borrowed bits of them from somewhere else, reminds of of our relative insignificance if we have to breathe air from somewhere else every moment to stay in this world. And with every breath we are influenced, and with every exhalation we influence others. And like the wind, we know not where those influences come from or where they go, some of the time. The rest of the time, musicologists and historians have something interesting to write about.

Of course, nothing (except unease) will stop you from listening to the music and simply enjoying it as a series of nice sensations. Or lauding it as a model of perfection because you know Mozart wrote it and you need something to be perfect and this certainly sounds like it. I wouldn't want to bother you too much by suggesting that even Mozart was fallible and that, as pretty as this piece is, it does have its awkward moments, its melodic ungainliness, a few places he could have handled the rhythmic motion a bit better--only a few places, mind you, which is astonishing for a ten-year old--but still, he wasn't a master just yet. There is still just enough room for his older-fictional, "Amadeusian" self to cock his head a little and say, "that doesn't really work, does it? have you tried..."

Mozart was evolving, but often our listening habits are static, and calcified. We only hear what we need to, and want to, and maybe those things won't change, if and until some other part of our interior universe does. In the meantime, What you hear as you listen is limited by your own ignorance, and your ability to keep 'extraneous' thoughts at bay.

But for a few of us, it isn't just a chaotic abyss you'd be sliding into. It's also quite fascinating....


 

Resolution
posted December 6, 2012

Practically everybody seems to have had some piano lessons in their past. Often they didn't go well. This year for Christmas I'm going to absolve you.

It takes two to tango, of course, and often the stories of woe center around the piano teacher. I can't tell you how many stories I've heard and seen about joyless and/or sadistic piano teachers who have driven their poor students to distraction and made them hate piano lessons and the piano. I can't really tell just how much of those encounters are actually the teacher's fault from this distance, but I can certainly imagine them getting a just share of the blame.

One of the issues is a lack of creativity. Piano teachers are often said to have no concept of musical creativity and to just try to kill it in their students. Many of my teachers in my formative years could have fit this bill, actually, but not the piano teacher. She was about the only one, some years, who didn't try to make me feel bad for changing the assignment slightly or trying to do something on my own initiative even if I wasn't really equipped for it. But I can imagine many piano teachers behaving the same way, and it saddens me. That's because many a piano teacher doesn't understand the creative process themselves, and therefore can't teach it; moreover, they may be threatened by it, and prefer to spend their time always trying to get the student just to read the notes in front of them and leave it at that. Possibly the most depressing story I read recently is from a well-regarded composer who said that he had learned to play the entire second movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony by ear--just by listening to it--and presented it at a piano lesson. "That's fine" said the teacher, "but did you practice your lesson?"

That's fine, she said. I don't usually want to slap people, but really. All that creative ability and she just sped right past it, because it didn't really count. Unfortunately there are always going to be people who don't recognize the value of being able to do things differently than they do. She probably said it sweetly and ever so firmly, primly, because, after all, it is all about doing your assignment.

Were this young man a student of mine, though, I do have to add that at some point we would want to make sure he had practiced his lesson. That's partly because discipline is very important if you want to accomplish anything, no matter how much it may chafe and no matter how often people complain whenever somebody makes them do something on the theory that they'll be better for it later. So is being able to play the notes on the page. There is a pretty fine line sometimes between creativity and incompetence (and rebellion) and sometimes it is necessary to stress putting your own musical whims on the shelf for a moment and trying--honestly trying--to come to terms with the music of people who really had something important to say to us. Still I think most piano teachers tend to err in this direction. Most students come with some creative ability and like to explore things and try them out. It is important to encourage this "goofing around." Because not only is it fun to experiment, it is also musical thinking. Maybe it really would sound better with this note instead of that note. As I mentioned, it is also possible that the student is changing the notes because they don't know how to read the ones on the page, and in that case a judicious case needs to be made for actually being able to do it. But even that doesn't need to be without fun.

I can recall many lessons from years past in which students were surprised that the lesson was over already. It wasn't because we weren't working hard. But you can tell jokes along the way and see things from a funny angle; you can forgive yourself for playing wrong notes but also practice in such a way that you probably won't miss them again; you can understand that you won't get everything to sound just right on the first try and set about creatively tackling the way to make it better, and learn to enjoy a challenge. Having fun and working hard don't have to be opposites, though I noted in childhood that for most kids that's exactly what they are. The minute any kind of rule is introduced, an organization, it isn't fun anymore. Too bad.

And that, unfortunately, is the other side of this albatross. There are a lot of bad teachers; there are also a lot of poor students. Piano playing always seems like it will be fun, but the mirage fades when it is time to practice. That's true of anything, but it seems especially true of piano lessons. Why? Well, for starters, if your kid doesn't do his math homework the teacher is on him or her the very next day. Your child probably spends about an hour a day on every subject taught in school under the supervision of the teacher, and sometimes two hours every day after school on soccer and volleyball and the next drama production. By contrast, the student spends half an hour a week with the piano teacher and then is expected to practice on their own for the next six days without anyone making sure that happens. Unless, of course, the parent applies a little pressure. But that doesn't happen nearly as often as it needs to. So, about a week later, when it turns out that your youngster is not the freakishly self-motivated exception to the rule, no progress has been made because sometime during the week mom got mad and made Susan march off to the piano where she pounded out a couple of songs once and that was five days ago and she hasn't touched the piano since. Seem like a recipe for success to you?

If you've sensed that perhaps you and I are on opposite sides of the line on this one--after all, I'm a piano teacher, and you likely are not--we can unite our frustrations here in much the same way that unites political argument: we can all blame the system. It's not really anybody's fault, per se, the system is just not designed for success.

Alright, it's probably not that easy, but you can see how if we, as a society, aren't taking music lessons all that seriously, in terms of spending time and/or money on it, we aren't likely to get results. Think about it. Johnny isn't doing so well in math class? The teacher sends a report home, there's a conference with the teacher and Johnny's parents (hopefully) and things get (at least somewhat) straightened around. That's how things work in a "real" class. Sports, too. You aren't doing your job? You're off the team. In music lessons, though, as numerous parents have told me, the object is for their child just to have fun. And if they aren't having fun....  Well, I think it should be fun, too. But if the minute it stops being fun you quit, you aren't that serious about it. Nobody threatens to pull their child out of reading or math if they aren't having fun. You do it anyway.

Now, many of you who have abandoned lessons are living with some degree of guilt, or embarrassment, or regret, and I promised I'd do something about that. So here are our options. 1) I can simply forgive you. As a member of the profession I can take it upon myself to represent musicians everywhere, and the muses themselves (why not? people pull stunts like that all the time) and tell you it's in the past and not to worry about it. Those negative emotions are really not so productive, you know? Why let them control your life, or form part of your character? Take charge, and let it go. There are enough pianists in the world that the species won't die out just because you are not among us. However it happened, it was your choice. Live with it. Go on. It's ok. Really.

2) If you feel like somehow this isn't enough, that there needs to be some sort of procedure involved, I can suggest one. I can't ask you to say 50 Hail Marys, but I could recommend you listen to some piano music. Maybe find 5 or ten pieces on the internet and listen to them. I mean really listen--don't do anything else with the music playing in the background. Pay attention. Or you could go to a piano recital. It doesn't have to be a professional one. You could go to a student recital and say encouraging things to the kids afterward about how nice it must be to play the piano and how you hope they stick with it. Do for them what you wished someone would have done for you, perhaps.

And that leads us to the next path: the path of involvement. There is nothing about this that is a done deal, permanent, unalterable. You could try taking piano lessons again. You could also say, been there, done that, don't really feel the need, not for me. That's ok. But if you think you might want to have another go, it is not too late. I've had retired people make wonderful students. Of course, you'll have to make time, and you'll have to practice. But don't go treating this like a New year's resolution where, two weeks into January, the first time you don't go to the gym, you give up on the whole year's resolution at once. Get back up on that horse and give it another try.

But you don't have to be a pianist to be involved in music. The NFL knows all about this. Every Sunday afternoon, or Monday night, or Thursday night, or Saturday afternoon, there are all sorts of people sitting on their couches watching football. They don't play football, most of them--maybe they did once, but gave it up, don't have much talent, and so on, but they are passionately interested in watching some other people play football. It is strange that that doesn't seem to translate to the piano. Practically everybody has given that a try at some point also. But the television is not filled with piano recitals, is it?

So here is something you could do if you are able. Support musicians. Go to concerts, talk to them. Encourage them. Buy their music. There aren't enough fans right now and you'd be doing something special. If you feel like you are lost in the world of piano music and need a primer, try reading the pianonoise blog with some regularity. Giving ordinary folks some insight into how all of that stuff works is exactly what the blog's about. And if you don't understand something, ask. That's what I'm here for. (try to be specific if you can) You could find yourself with a really interesting hobby, in addition to giving much needed support and encouragement to folks who could use some.

In any case, don't worry about it. I could have been a lot of things I didn't turn out to be; opened some doors, things didn't work out. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if things turned out differently. But I don't really mind how they did. I hope you don't, either.  Happy holidays. I'm going to go play some Christmas carols at a party. You can sing along.

 

Marking Time
posted October 15, 2012
 
Last month saw the anniversary of two seminal figures in the world of music. Composer John Cage would have been 100 years old on September 5th. Pianist Glenn Gould would have been 80. Both of them stretched the boundaries of our notions of music.

John Cage was a composer who did not see the act of composition as an act of will, or of personal creativity, or of making choices. Instead, he sought to allow unforeseen events to occur--a Cage piece is a process, and the outcome is never tightly controlled. Probably his most famous piece is 4'33" in which the performer (it can be a pianist or a group of musicians) simply sits at the instrument(s) for the duration of the piece and allows whatever happens in that space during that time to be the music. The performer, like the composer, has no control over the final product. It is philosophically opposite virtually any and all notions of musical creativity that came before. Cage's Zen Buddhism allowed him to see the experience as a letting go, in which the composer experiences along with everyone else something about the randomness of the world around and calls it art simply out of appreciation--as a priori appreciation of the mundane--not out of a desire for quality--not out of a desire for anything. One simply opens up to the world around.

Still, being so violently out of step with the rest of the musical world, it seemed as though Cage had a style. His concepts were certainly unique. One of his pieces involved several radios tuned to various frequencies at given intervals of time. The numbers of the frequencies and the time intervals were all randomly generated--Cage tried not to choose anything by a conscious act. It might be that what the radio poured forth was simply the static between stations. That, too, was part of the music.

Naturally, a lot of people thought he was off his rocker. Cage seemed to be playing with the fundamental idea about music: that it was simply control of time. Whereas for him it was the act of perceiving whatever happened to be going on around you as part of the art. Heretofore, that had simply been the blank canvas on which the music was painted; now it was the music. Before, someone coughing in the concert hall during the music was interfering with the music. Now that was a part of it, on a equal basis with whatever else happened. It was total democracy--or total chaos. No longer was the artist communicating a vision with the public, leading, persuading, imploring, letting them into her emotional world, now the artist was in the same position as everyone else. Let's see what happens.

Glenn Gould was at the opposite end of the spectrum. For Gould, every note was so finely articulated that it threatened to break the syntax of the phrase. The other night, listening to the E-flat Prelude in the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier I kept thinking, for the love of God, Mr. Gould! Play a long line once in a while! And yet, what clarity! What control over every single voice in a dense polyphony! How peculiar and yet how revealing to show us the unfolding structure of a Bach prelude by subtle adjustments in staccato and legato. The downside was it made it had to stop focusing on the idiosyncratic performance and think about the music. It was a virtuosity that ought to make every living pianist jealous. But then, what did it accomplish?

And then, there were the tempi--always extreme. Fast wasn't just fast, it was world record. It was inhuman. Which make many of his interpretations seem as though he isn't really talking about Bach at all, as conservative as his tastes in repertoire were. He is really giving us the 20th century with all its machines and machinations, all its aspirations and all its carnage. It is Gould like a musical Jeremiah. When it is all over, is that what Gould was really saying to humanity? That he retreated from the world into his recording studio only to fully realize, in the music of the past, the impulses of his own time, the crisis of living in the mid to late 20th century?

Gould was also a hypochondriac. While Cage seems to have taken such a healthy approach to living in his environment that he seems to have had no ego at all, Gould turned inward and was an obsessive self-analyst. Even his phobias had phobias. While Cage was turned outward, exploring life with leisurely acceptance, Gould wanted to know every tick of his tightly wound clock. Yet both of them flourished at the same time. It is hard to conceive of. If you want your head to explode, try imagining the complete works of John Cage as recorded by Glenn Gould. (I'll be he manages to articulate the station changes with extraordinary crispness, and in a way that really allows you to hear all the radios!)

There is one more fellow I ought to mention, though he is the odd one out, even here. Samuel Wesley died 175 years ago this month. He was sometimes called the English Mozart, which is being kind, though I know few of his works so perhaps I am not qualified to judge. Even the little Prelude I posted yesterday in the listening room has charm. I had chosen to play it in church before I had any idea Mr. Wesley was having an anniversary. I think it is only the second time I've ever played something of his. Odd, no? Samuel Wesley was certainly odd, and, it must be said, the prototype of the badly behaved "preacher's kid." He caused his parents, the brother and sister-in-law of the founder of the Methodist church, a good deal of consternation. But then, they didn't seem to think much of his vagabond ways, what with being a musician and all. He still managed to be a church organist in various churches and to produce a respected body of anthems and some organ voluntaries. He also fathered another musical Wesley (with his mistress) who turned out to also be a rather odd fellow. But then, not only do odd people make life interesting, they usually tell us something about music and about life that the conventionally behaved never manage to grasp. So let us be grateful.

Ten years ago, in one of the first columns in this space, I mused on the variety of philosophical outlooks, lifestyles, and, of course, musical outpourings of the people whose works were just starting to populate this webspace. Things haven't gotten any less cosmopolitan around here. Of course, if you want to hear any Gould or Cage you'll have to look it up because their works are under copyright and I'll let someone else do the illegal uploading. But as I start to obtain permissions from various living composers I'll be representing our own era with a bit more thoroughness. Until then, we have several centuries of musical creativity to keep us occupied. And the living behind it all--astonishing! What a strange treasure trove. What a cast of characters!

Sort of makes your family seem a bit tame, doesn't it?



Music Appreciation

posted Sept. 5, 2012

I've never been a fan of the term "Music Appreciation," mainly because it sounds like it has a real PR problem.

I mean, this is the best we can do? Really?

Sounds like we're setting the bar a little low here, aren't we? We aren't hoping you'll actually like it, or be passionate about it, we're just hoping you'll build up a tolerance for it.

And yet, for decades, the terminology of choice in classrooms around the land to describe the curriculum to people who are often forced to have some kind of an encounter with music that does not come over the top-40 radio stations or is marketed at teenagers, is that strange little word: appreciate.

It sounds kind of academic, doesn't it? And just maybe, in the back of your mind, you are thinking about mom, who made you "appreciate" your vegetables when you were young or you wouldn't get any dessert.

Still, sad as that is, it isn't a unique philosophical use of the term. We are still trying to get people to appreciate each other, too. And the lack thereof, of being able to understand and at least tolerate other cultures, other viewpoints, and other needs, expresses itself in war and antagonism, power struggles, culture wars, and general mayhem. So in a way this apparently pabulum concept, when applied to music, isn't as bad as it could be--there are more pronounced symptoms in other areas of life. Getting you to appreciate something is also about more than just making some nice professor somewhere feel pleasantly useful. The stakes are higher than that.

I have a friend who teaches a course in film appreciation at the university, and always has to explain, on the first day, the difference between liking something and appreciating something. Liking something being what you do automatically, without thinking about it. You are instantly attracted to it, because it has properties in it that speak to you at this moment, where you are, and gratifies your senses, or your mind, or some temporary need, or jogs a memory, or sounds like other songs you already like, or gives you pleasure when you sing along, or your friends all like it too, or whatever. It may also confirm whatever musical prejudices you may have, and it gives you a taste of the familiar without asking you to encounter something you don't know very well and try to deal with that.

The problem with only liking or disliking something is that it has, in itself, no growth mechanism. You'll never explore any more than is immediately obvious to you, easily available (and even hard to avoid), part of your own generation, your own subculture, the groups you belong to, and so on. You may eventually grow to like many pieces of music, but they will all more or less resemble each other. The only way out of that vicious cycle is to either encounter other people and their tastes with something resembling an open mind, or to start with the music itself and try to figure out why so many other people like it, even if you don't. The trick with musical appreciations is that as your musical vocabulary grows, so does your ability to connect with a broad range of music, and to even like it in some way, strange as it might be. At first this ability will not be prominent, but, like compound interest, it eventually makes you rich. (note: intellectual interest rates don't go in the crapper like the ones at the bank!)

Last year one of our choral groups sang some fairly demanding (and fairly modern) literature, and the director was met with some expressions of disapproval for the choice of material. Of course, a large part of that was due to the fact that the music was difficult, and whenever people find something difficult, that first, frustrated reaction is to blame the music. This stems from the idea that most people have that the music should come to them, rather than that they might need to exert themselves, and in the process become something other than they were, in order to meet the music, and be changed by what the composer had to say. It requires us to stop behaving like little absolute monarchs and pack our bags and journey up the mountain, trusting that whatever we find when we get there will have been worth the traveling. Or if not that at least the travelling will have been worth the travelling.

I have to admit that at first the music did not make a great impression on me, either. I liked parts of it, which is to say that parts of it were immediately attractive, but having heard a performance of the entire work at a concert the semester before I was under the impression that it was rather long, and too monotonous, that is, inclined to too many slow tempos in a row. The performance itself may have had something to do with that impression, of course.

Over the semester the piece grew on me. This is usually the case with better pieces of music. Conversely, the ones that are not so great usually burst on the scene all at once, like gum that announces itself via sensory overload and then loses its flavor in five minutes. I usually find that a piece of music that makes an attractive first impression on me will wear out within a few days. But a piece that makes just enough of an impression that I'll want to hear it again, but no more, might turn out to really have something to offer for years to come.

I may have gotten a bit of a head start here.  Back in childhood I listened to Handel's Messiah and did not find the three hours of operatic singing with large string orchestras and slow tempi much to my liking (this was before historical performance research had kicked in so nobody was paying much attention to whether or not Handel himself would have performed the piece that way). But I decided the fault was mine since I had heard that it was a great work and I was therefore supposed to like it. So I stayed in my room and forced myself to keep listening to it. And over time, I started to like it (this is in contrast to creamed peas, which my mother made me eat every week for years and I still don't like!). Better still, I figured out what it was about it that I couldn't come to grips with my initial childish mindset, and grew from the experience. My attention span grew too, which helped, but I was able to concentrate better because I had something to concentrate on, rather than just how strange it all was. The amazing thing is that I not only love the piece, I am able to enjoy new pieces that I've never heard before from the same era because I can understand the musical rhetoric behind it--just like you are reading this article which you have never read before and understanding it because you know how to read in English.

I suppose that little exercise in musical humility served me well as I went off to music school and listened over and over to works I didn't know but which had so much to say once I figured out what it was. I listened for the way the musical argument unfolded, for the way the tunes were transformed, for the fascinating details that shed light on the whole, for the unique obsessions and techniques each composer brought to the table. That in turn may have helped me to learn about other cultures and ideas, and open up to different people. It is interesting how appreciation, when actively pursued, does lead to liking. It isn't the upset mother telling her ungrateful child "you'll appreciate me when I'm dead!" but appreciating proceeded by stronger adjectives like truly, or wonderfully. Eventually it can go from merely tolerating all the way up to experiencing the transcendent in the ordinary.

In the end it leads us back to that little equation about liking what we know and knowing what we like, only now there is more to know (better) and thus more to like, which means we spend more time liking things and less fighting them off, which I think makes us happier in the long run.

 

 

What I did this Summer
posted August 1, 2012

I don't remember actually ever having to write the classic essay on what I did this summer on the first day back in school. So maybe as recompense for having been denied this childhood rite of passage I'm foisting it on you. You get to grade my paper. Be nice. With any luck what I did was interesting enough you won't be sorry for the exchange.

I like to travel in small doses. Some time ago I became convinced that if I tried to earn my living as a traveling concert pianist I would be sorry. All of that living out of hotel rooms and being in a semi-permanent state of jet lag doesn't really hold that much appeal. But if I stay home too long I get restless, which is why this summer seems to have held a perfect balance.

I spent the first part of the summer preparing for a tour of Europe with a choir in our town known as The Chorale. I've been accompanying them for a few years, and this is the first international tour they've done since I came on board. Normally we go on hiatus after our concert in early May and resume in late August, but this year those of us going on the tour kept up the rehearsal schedule through May and into the middle of June when we went on the tour. We were in three central European cities in 10 days, giving concerts in Budapest, Vienna, and Prague, and spending every other waking moment trying to exhaust ourselves and see all of central Europe at once. Although that could have been merely because my wife came along and she's an ambitious traveler. There were a few hours in every day that were not part of the group sightseeing excursions. Down time, if you will. We weren't.

Like the trip to Taiwan I took over 11 years ago and still haven't documented, this one has plenty of archival footage. Between the two of us we took over 600 photographs. Whenever the official tour wasn't officially touring we braved the public transportation and our aching feet to get to remote parts of the cities and see things. There was our adventure at the spa in Budapest. We also saw an ancient Roman city there. In Vienna I spent the first morning trying to get to know the strange pipe organ in the balcony of the Karlschirke and watching the elevator carry workers up to the ceiling to restore the fresco. Another Chorale member and I went jogging on the palace grounds of the Hapsburgs, which is a touch more scenic than Champaign, Illinois. Actually, the entire city of Vienna reminded me of the line from Amadeus where Mozart is complaining about "people so lofty they sound as if they shit marble." Vienna had plenty of marble, and they weren't shy about flaunting it. This was actually the third time I've been there but I didn't recall seeing so much of it.

In Prague I concluded my three city jogging tour by running along the Moldau with the mist rising off of it. What an effect! We spent some time outside the doors of St. Vitus trying to listen to an organ improvisation, and another evening tooling around the old town trying to find an organ concert before settling in at a black light theatrical performance, something that is apparently unique to Prague. On the day of our final concert I was taken to the church of St. Francis to play a pipe organ that dates from 1702. Apparently I wasn't the first musical tourist to tickle its ebony; some fellows named Mozart and Dvorak tried it out in the 18th and 19th centuries, respectively. If you shake my hand you might get a little Mozart on you. This offer may not last; I've probably already washed my hands some 100 times since then and the product may already be a little diluted.

When we returned home in mid-June, I was ready for a tour of a different sort. Much of July was spent with a group called the Gavin Stolte Project, named after its founder. Basically, we're a five-piece rock band, although we do a variety of styles, cover some really popular songs, and do several original songs as well. We played a couple of the parks in Champaign-Urbana, and a couple of area bars. We'll be gigging throughout the year so if you live in town you can probably catch us. I put GSP gigs on my google calendar along with everything else whether it's a classical piano recital or a bar gig, or you can find us on Facebook.

When I was growing up in a little town in Ohio, learning classical piano, my neighbors would forecast ecstatically that someday they'd see me playing the piano on television, and I'd think, "not very likely. Even if they put a classical pianist on television it would be on PBS, which most of you guys don't watch anyway." Probably they had me confused with the kind of musicians they did see on television, like my cousin, who always assumed I'd become a keyboardist in a rock band. He might be surprised (if he were still alive) to find that these days I actually am a keyboardist in a rock band some of the time. (We've also been on local television. But I've been on local TV stations a couple of times for classical piano as well. I think I was even on Greek television once but I never saw it.)

It sounds like it might be quite a stylistic shift, but if you knew how I spend my Sunday mornings, shuttling between the traditional and contemporary services, from Bach to rock sometimes within 30 seconds, you'd see I've gotten pretty used to it. I like a challenge.

In the middle of all of those gigs came a concert by the new Vocal Arts Ensemble of Urbana, directed by University of Illinois professor emeritus Chester Alwes. A dozen university students and professionals sang a concert of art song by Brahms and Schumann. I haven't been playing a lot of art song lately, although that was principally how I worked my way through grad school so it felt like a return to my old stomping grounds. The concert, in a church on campus and featuring an unfortunately out of tune piano, was well advertised on a local radio show. I was surprised to find standing room only for a concert of art song!

Kristen and I are beginning August with a short anniversary trip to Madison, Wisconsin where one of the highlights will be the National Mustard Museum. They haven't asked me to give a concert there, and I don't know what I'd play anyhow. Does anybody know of any good mustard-related piano literature?

That reminds me how we started off our summer, taking an afternoon trip to Peoria to see the semi-final round of the World Championship of Old-Time Piano Playing. It reminds me because between contestants they were asking about our extensive knowledge of rags that related to various things like trains and beverages and so forth. Do I get points taken off for going out of chronological order and leaving this till the end?

I've been trying to put together another piano recital for the and of August but it will probably have to wait until fall (you may recall I gave a very challenging recital on my birthday around this time last year). Meanwhile I've been discovering the world of flashy French organ toccatas. They are surprisingly easy and crowd pleasing. They also give a nice break from the German renaissance literature I've been dipping into. There is a time for everything.

There is also a time for the weather to stop hitting the triple digits in the shade. It's something I look forward to with a return to the fall schedule. Hope you had a good summer. I'll see you in September.

 

Finding my Footing
posted July 1, 2012

You don't want to go to any parties where there are a lot of pianists. Apparently they only want to talk about fingerings.

I say apparently because I haven't been to any hot parties with a bunch of pianists lately (they don't invite me), and I only have the observation second-hand from a book I read several years ago. It seems the temptation to talk shop is just too much for these knights of the keyboard, and so they spend all night discussing whether 'tis better to put your thumb under the third finger or the fourth when executing a particular passage of a Beethoven Sonata in that well-known left hand run.  I can understand this specialist geekery because a fellow organist and I spent an hour talking about the Leipzig chorales the other day.

I've spent some time in this space ruminating on the differences between professionals and amateurs. Perhaps this topic interests me because in some ways I seem to be on the fault line myself. As a pianist I am a trained professional, having logged hundreds of hours of lessons, advanced degrees, and concert experience. As an organist, though, by training, I am an amateur.

This is not to say I don't consider myself a fairly good organist. Since finishing my degree in 2006, I've probably spent as much or more time at the organ, tackling some of the most difficult literature for the instrument, and acquainting myself with the fascinating challenges that are unique to playing that instrument. But I've been doing it mostly on my own, which means trial and mostly error.

The most obvious difference between playing the organ and playing the piano is that there is a row of 'keys' for the feet. This pedal board contains two and a half octaves in range and can be put to a variety of intriguing uses. Many of the organ's best composers have seen employing the feet as a necessity, a challenge, and a love.

My fingers have benefitted from the experience of several eminent teachers, some of whom took it upon themselves to make certain I was not doing taking the path of least mental resistance, just throwing the fingers up on the keys in whatever order came to mind, but rather that my fingers were making an efficient course over the keys, that they knew their routes well, and that they could be relied upon when pressure was applied to the psychology of the player. Out in the wild of the concert hall it presents additional peril if the player suddenly substitutes a fifth finger for a fourth while gliding up the piano at high speed, or finds it necessary to use the same finger on consecutive notes, rendering an important melody line disjointed and broken. Hence the science of fingering, in which one takes the time to find, and to stick with, proven fingerings, at least until  better ones can be found.

This has served me well with regard to the organ's keyboards. An additional amount of manual dexterity is required for an instrument which will not allow you to sustain a note merely by sticking your foot on an all-purpose foot pedal, but requires the actual presence of your finger in order for the note to sound. Making the music sound well often requires complex substituting of one finger for another while they are on the same key in order not to interrupt the flow of the sound. All of this has been drilled into me by years of professional attention. But with regard to my feet--there I have had to go it alone. Well, not quite alone.

A professionally trained organist would probably not admit to learning anything by way of Youtube. The last few years has certainly seen a seismic shift in the world of the organist. People whom you might not assume would embrace the latest technology have been doing it in droves, and the effect has been to demystify the character of the organist. For centuries the organist had been hidden up in the balcony, or off to the side, or, at the very least with his body hidden behind the console so the congregation could at most see his head, and now, suddenly, he or she can be seen everywhere. For me this has meant the opportunity to see just how the masters of their craft do it.

It's been a bit eye-opening. For one thing, I've caught at least one eminent organist stealing glances at the pedals every so often. As a student you are surely forbidden to ever ever look at the pedals, this being as big a sin as looking at the keys. But if you have the piece memorized, why not? This is akin to the kind of permission-giving that often takes place at a master class when a famed musician comes to your school and basically tells you it is alight to commit various things you were sure were unthinkable. The payoff in relieved loosening up and making assured music is incalculable. This by itself is worth the high price the school is paying to bring them. I mean, if so-and-so says it is alright, then surely it is alright!

Another has been in the area of legato. Smooth pedaling for me has often meant various combinations of alternating feet, one looping behind or in front of the other. Or, in the case of notes close together, placing the foot at a diagonal and playing one with the heel and the next with the toe or vice versa. Or even "foot substitutions" (I don't know if that is a technical term but it is with the fingers) wherein you hold down a note with one foot, then stick your other foot on the same note and release the first foot for further duty elsewhere. It is tricky business if you have to be somewhere fast.

What happens more often than I would have thought is that an organist will play several consecutive notes with the same foot. Part of this, I think, lies in the fact that many of these churches have very wet acoustics, and that a tiny space between pedal notes is not even going to be noticed--it may even be desirable for clarity. But another reason for it is the economy of motion with which a good organist approaches pedaling. If the feet are basically dangling off the bench, and the toes make only the smallest touch, there is very little time needed to get anywhere. But woe to the organist whose feet are planted on the pedals! It is like being stuck in quicksand. Mine have, alas, not been as agile as I would have liked--I am about as naturally coordinated as a park bench, appearances to the contrary, and so I naturally put my weight too far forward, and have had no good role models to show me otherwise. It is amazing what watching a few good organists can accomplish.

It is also amazing what one can accomplish without that important tutelage. A recording I made just a couple of years ago illustrates the point. Bach's chorale prelude "Come, Lord Jesus, Turn Toward Us" has a rather involved pedal part. Particularly at 1:11, where it sounds like a walking bass. I must have pulled out all my old tricks to get through it--foot over foot, heel to toe (without the graceful economy wherein you can hardly tell the organist is doing it), and foot substitutions. Some of these tricks are practiced by true professionals, and are the result of different schools of organ playing. Some of the differences can also be attributed to the fact that pedal boards are different sizes and shapes and one method of playing might not work in another situation. But as always, increased competence in one area leads to increased competence in another. My feet now have greater agility and flexibility and can seamlessly do what formerly could be done only with a lot of noisy advertising. Even though with enough will power one can still overcome a deficient technique, as in the present recording. I wonder if playing it would be any easier now? Because when you really develop your technique, it looks easy. Because it is easy.

Getting it that way is the hard part.

 

 

The Big 1-0
posted June 1, 2012

On the morning of April 18, 2001, I rolled out of bed and thought to myself, "I'd finally better get around to registering that domain name." I'd had the idea in the back of my head for a while, but the internet was starting to fill up, and, given that everybody else in the developed world was in the same pool, I figured I'd better jump on it if I wanted to be sure that some other strange person hadn't already thought of the mashed-up word Pianonoise. Turns out they hadn't.

That afternoon I bought some software and spent the next couple of hours trying to figure out this website creation/publication, thing. By evening, I had managed to publish my first page to the web. It was a single paragraph, of which I now do not have a copy. It expressed some surprise that anyone would have chanced across my little plot of cyber-real-estate and promised to improve my property when I figured out what I was doing. Over the next six weeks I tried to do just that.

On June 1, 2001, the first official post of Pianonoise.com went live. It wasn't a whole lot. I'd spent most of that time fighting with my software over the right size to display pictures and other formatting issues. The site consisted of a home page which actually looked a lot like this one except for the color scheme, already with its trademark banner photo (I forget of what) and quotation of the month, and that navigation bar down the left side which already had clickable photographs. In 2001 it was one of the more visually arresting sites on the web, which was perhaps odd for a site dedicated to music. But I wanted it to look good as well as sound good, and found it sort of irritating that most of the "how to build a web site" sites counseled simplicity on the idea that web browsers couldn't be relied on to display things the way you wanted them to so you might as well not do anything interesting. I've never found that an appealing philosophy.

There were two other pages. One was a page detailing the interesting concert tour of Louis Moreau Gottschalk. The other was a page called "the music room" and it had a handful of MIDI files you could download if you wanted to listen to me play a tinny synthesized keyboard. I was already having problems with the sound quality but hadn't just yet discovered that you could actually get audio recordings onto the web. They would have taken an hour to load anyway.

That's right, youngins. In 2001 the web was a whole different place. We used cheesy clip-art then and we liked it. There weren't any videos. Most of us had dial-up connections. When I started uploading my first recordings, a five-minute piece took a half-hour to get on the web. It feels like a whole generation ago. This was before blogs. In the early years of the 21st century, having a web site was somewhat unusual. I remember a student's mother tell me that my student thought I was "hotsh--" because I had one. Now everybody puts everything online and it is no big deal. Although I have been on several blogs lately whose last posts date from 2010. A lot of people have gotten into blogging, had their fill, and retired from the field already. I'm still here, which seems like an accomplishment. I don't update often enough, or regularly enough, but keep at something long enough and you wind up with something. Over 130 recordings and enough reading matter to make up a medium length novel (I'm guessing)--and that doesn't include all of the things I've taken down over the years.

There was one general idea behind Pianonoise from the beginning: to share music and what it is like being a pianist. To that end there were articles about composers of piano music and pieces of music to listen to. Some years back a relative of mine observed that what I was doing was a lot like scrapbooking. Sort of, but not really. The site is an extension of my personality, and it does include pictures of places I've visited and concerts I've given, thoughts I've had, pieces I've played, but the point is not really to simply chronicle my journey through life, but to share them with anyone who finds them of value. This amazing thing called music, and written commentary about it were the first two expressions of that sharing. The two were supposed to go together, although 10 years later I still haven't managed to coordinate them as well as I meant to. I think it was 2008 when I adopted the look of the site, with banners and navigation bars on every page and a left-hand column with music accompanying many (but not yet all) of the articles so you can read and listen at the same time.

Before that I'd done experiments with different colored pages, different effects when going from page to page, crawlers, and everything else I could think of to have fun with and make fun of. I remember an impossibly long crawler below the banner once making fun of the length of cable news crawlers, and another one that had the "stock prices" of various composers. Once, after some story about how the government was monitoring the web closely after 9/11 I wrote to our then attorney general "Welcome, Mr. Ashcroft" below the banner. That turned out not to be so funny when I reviewed my web statistics for the month and found a lot of attention coming from "US military" until I found out that a friend of mine was visiting her father who was a retired military officer.

While I struggled with the problem of how to get regular access to a good piano and not to sound like a chump while finishing a doctoral degree which meant more research than practicing, the website started to go in other directions. I began posting the music I played in church. This past year I posted nearly everything I played as a prelude or offertory that wasn't copyrighted--every week all season. I am not aware of any other church organist/pianist who does this. No wonder. It's a difficult deadline to meet every week for the better part of a year.

I also started writing about things non-musical. Sometimes I wonder whether this is worth the trouble, but then Pablo Casals offered up a good quote about being a "human being first, and an artist second." Social and political concerns may stir up wrath, but then they affect people more than classical music, always a specialist's concern. Most people could care less about the music. And I've always had a funny attitude about that. I want them to listen to it--actually pay attention. It would be easier to just put it on in the background, listen to the pretty sounds, and bliss out. But that's not what this site is about. So charging into the whole of life seems only appropriate. It has also given me an outlet during those years when I couldn't make many good recordings--new sections were born, flourished, got neglected, experienced a renaissance, lather rinse, repeat.

Sometimes I can indulge various other parts of my persona, what-ifs regarding directions I could have gone in life. Sometimes I'll write something potentially funny. My middle school journalism teacher thought I was going to be the next Dave Barry (actually, it was Art Buchwald, but she was older). Of course, I could have also been a computer programmer (I spent many childhood afternoons that way) but now I find I only know enough HTML code (what you tell the computer to get it to display your web page the way you want it) to be dangerous. My mother though I could also go into advertising. True, i could be writing all of those goofy, whimsical commercials you see out there, but I glad somebody else is doing it. One thing I have been is a teacher--philosophically I'm still a teacher, but there was a time when I had a raft of piano students. There were meant to be, (and will be) resources or aids for students, though the teaching section of the site is currently in stasis. After moving to Illinois, I began having trouble finding students who minded practicing occasionally.

There is even a resource for brides having weddings at our church. They can hit a few play buttons and decide what music they'd like to hear at the ceremony. Several brides have commented they like this idea very much. In return for the ease of the process, I don't have to have to practice the Pachelbel canon between ceremonies.

Some of Pianonoise's features don't get updated very often, and some testify to changing priorities, possibilities and interests. This year I've finally managed to get some decent piano sound out of my recordings, but even now there are more organ recordings. This summer I'm planning to change that--for the first time. Along with the sound itself, there needs to be more explanation about how it got there. This fall I'm finally going to start a weekly blog in which I share recordings along with what to listen for, what makes being a pianist so interesting, and I'm even going to be so bold as to indulge in a little all-important minutiae like fingering and interpretive issues so you know what I obsess about in order to bring you the music. It should be an interesting conversation. This site was never intended for knowledgeable musicians but for the larger crowd of people who would like to know something about art and music if somebody would kindly let them know what was going on. I'm still working on that.

Meanwhile, the experiment that is Pianonoise goes on, ten years later. It now contains close to 100 pages--some very long pages--of writings, and over 125 recordings. It has become rich in details, as well. At the top of every page is a quotation from something I've read over the last ten years. So, while the pictures testify to places I've been and things I've seen and experienced, the quotes remind me of where I've been mentally, of all of the thoughts that people have shared with me, living and dead. While Pianonoise is technically the work of one individual, it is, like all human products, the result of the efforts and influences of countless other people.

This year I've noticed a lot of blogs and Youtube channels that have come and gone, victims perhaps to one-time passions that have burnt out, or whose owners have shuffled off this mortal coil (one blog recently informed me that its author passed away last year from ALS). But we're still here. Let's celebrate--music and life.

 

 

(This is) Your Brain on Microsoft
A paen to the pain of practicing
posted April 18, 2012

"Go practice the piano!" our mothers would yell. So off we'd march. But once seated at the instrument, not all sounds gushing forth bore a family resemblance to the tunes our teachers had actually assigned. It was easy to fool mom. She was busy chopping onions in the kitchen and wasn't paying too close attention, so as long as she heard piano noises coming out of the living room you were probably safe. Once in a while, though, you might get a reprimand. "That doesn't sound like your lesson!"

It has taken me several years to figure out what I really ought to be doing when I am supposed to be practicing the piano. All of that goofing around I did during childhood wasn't all bad, however. There is a fine line between goofing around and creativity. Making up passages so your songs would be longer, or trying to play them in different keys or just making up something else because you had gotten tired (oh so quickly) of playing the same one again and again--all this has actually borne fruit, even in some of my gainful employment, to say nothing of my hobbies. But actually practicing is a skill that comes late to many of us, and to many more, not at all. It is a discipline, which is to say it is not easy, or natural. And to teach it in a way that does not make it seem like the killer of every possible ounce of joy in the known universe is probably also beyond the ability of most teachers.

Still, the art of practicing is an extremely important skill to have if you want to get anyplace as a musician. At one point I asked myself, "how do concert pianists practice?" to which the answer was simply "become one and find out!"

I have since spent thousands of hours with myself in the practice room, and found that, while I may not always be the best company, any piece of music worth the learning has a price--and often rewards with joys subtle and great at various stages in the process.

At first, if the piece is not too unfathomably difficult, I read it through. This stage can include the joy of discovery, particularly if your composer has planted little harmonic surprises, or turns of phrase on every other page so that you feel as though you are listening to a skilled conversationalist. At this point you are experiencing all of the effect of the piece and little of the hard work. But if the piece is too difficult to make continuous playing practical, proceed directly to stage two: rolling up the sleeves and getting to work.

There are a lot of people who don't like this stage very well. It often means playing the same measure or phrase over and over until every note, and every choreographed leap, is just right. The passage has to feel comfortable in the hands, and it has to make musical sense. Since a really fine composition will usually have many simultaneous details, there are a lot of small things to master. At this point we are also teaching the muscles what their routes are. I have heard it claimed that in the course of a piano recital a pianist will make some 600,000 decisions. The more of those that can be put on autopilot the better! How do you articulate each note? How loud is piano exactly? Forget the tempo, that will come with more practice. Can you make even a single measure feel like something you know well rather than something you have to suffer through each time? Never mind a measure: what about a single gesture?

Getting this kind of familiarity in the music pays off--eventually. In the meantime, it can go anywhere from mildly frustrating to fairly depressing. No wonder people would rather avoid it. Whole hours, or days (or weeks) of limping through the same passages, hardly noticing the improvement (unless, like myself, you have trained yourself to notice even the subtlest difference in the way your brain reacts to the information), constantly missing the same notes (make a note of those for special attention), spending all of your energy trying to do what the notes tell you when, if you ever manage to make the piece sound like music, it will be you telling the notes how you want them to sound--this is the pianist's dirty secret. Years ago a neighbor of mine asked how I practiced (interesting, because when the window was open he could probably have listened in). He figured I probably just played the pieces over and over. Not exactly....

How long this stage lasts depends greatly on the difficulty of the piece. But it is always too long. And there is always a point at which I wonder when it will be over. I've gotten used to this. I even plan for it. For a fairly short piece of moderate difficultly, for instance, it will probably take about three days to learn. And so on. And at some point (as I tell myself often) there will come a point when the details will have assembled themselves with enough familiarity and control that I need no longer focus on them so much and I can begin to use my energy to consider larger issues of interpretation, when the piece starts to sound like music, and you can try making it say something instead of merely trying to get the recipe of notes right. This is a good time to be alive. It is also a lot less mentally tiring when you have passed on to this third stage, and you can practice longer without getting so mentally worn out. You may not yet have the piece memorized, but it is familiar, which is at least half-way there.

One of the long-familiar signs of this earlier stage (and also a sign when it has gone away) is how tired I get after practicing for even an hour. If I have been exposing myself to new notes and new musical information, my brain is practically a hive of activity. I can almost feel it buzzing about. I have trouble using words or thinking clearly at times, as if in a cloud. And I can also get very sleepy. The other day I ingested an entire short piece at one meal and I felt an overpowering urge to sleep at the end. It reminded me of what my computer is always telling me: you must reboot in order for the latest updates to take effect.

It might not seem intuitive, but I think sleep is a very important part of practicing. After a nap, the notes are always much more clearly in the mind. This also brings up the importance of practicing a piece well in advance of when you intend to play it (something I get to do less often these days when there is such a volume of music to deal with).

I once did an interesting experiment in college. I practiced a brand new piece of music very diligently for two hours. Then my mother came to take me home to spend the weekend (my parents lived 45 minutes away from the school). I should note that I did not take my laundry home. That evening, sitting at home, I tried to imagine the piece I had worked on several hours ago. No use. I could barely remember anything. But the next day, a little bit emerged. By the third day, I could remember whole passages and see the thing pretty clearly in my mind. I had not touched the piano all weekend, but by Sunday night, it was as if I had been practicing hard for three days. It confirmed a theory I had about the importance and independence of the brain. It always seemed to take three days to memorize things. I wondered how much practice had to do with it. I came away thinking that the brain can incorporate new routines without us, provided we've told it what to do, and convinced it that it is important to learn it by constant reinforcement of the same regimen and through repetition. Then you have to wait for the film to develop! (My apologies to the young folks who don't know what I'm talking about.)

Once the piece is in the mind and the fingers it would seem victory is assured. After all, as I would tell myself, gritting my teeth, "The piece is already written. The composer can't make it any harder than it already is, and I can keep working until I get it. That puts the odds in my favor!" But it always helps to remember that, nearing the end, there is always a stage of frustration while the piece, nearly perfect, doesn't quite come out. At this stage I am usually playing it through several times a day, trying to get it to "gel." At that point little errors creep in, or don't quite go away, little fissures develop in places I thought were airtight, and often mistakes occur in different places every time. This used to horrify my colleagues the week of their recitals because they hadn't quite prepared far enough in advance, and hurried, harried, last minute practice has a way of making the situation seem worse. This indicates that you still don't know the piece as well as you should, and to add insult to injury, by this time you are sure that you ought to be in full command of it by now, that it's already taken far too long to prepare, and that you should be ashamed of yourself for not achieving perfection already for crying out loud!

If you get to the point where the piece is going very well, there are still three things to remember: there is a big difference between playing the piece flawlessly by yourself when you've already been practicing it for an hour (I call this the 'student' stage because they would always tell me "It went better at home" and I would say "of course it did!" with no trace of sarcasm), being able to sit down with no warm up at all and just nail the piece right away (also alone), and lastly, being able to play it while nervous and dealing with distractions, preferably at what feels like 4 in the morning. This last bit of honesty helps me prepare to play the weekly offertory at the 8 o'clock service, and also prepare for concerts in places with a significant time difference since nothing makes certainty uncertain like messing with the basic makeup of your biological clock.

If this whole litany of obstacles and objections makes you want to go out right now and practice, you need serious help! And if, by chance, you found it tedious and dull, just imagine what all that practicing is like. But then, listeners are spoiled. You get to hear the end results with none of the suffering. Sometimes I like to go to concerts (when I can), partly for that reason. Or even to listen to my own recordings sometimes, well after the fact. You see, I forget so easily....

 

 

 

Of All the Nerves....
posted March 10, 2012

Conventional wisdom has it that there are people who would rather die than have to perform in public. According to that often quoted study, in which fear of public speaking is number one and fear of death is number two, there are a whole lot of you who feel that way. Which is interesting, because it makes being a performing musician seem more heroic than, say, risking death to put out a fire. It does seem a little hyperbolic to take that kind of accolade, but when I'm having a bad day, I'll use that to try to feel better about myself.

I used to tell my students that the nice thing about playing the piano was that if you missed a note nobody got seriously injured--you or the audience (despite all the exaggerated rhetoric critics like to launch about the detrimental effects of poor pianism on their sensitive ears). It isn't like figure skating where you can fall on your tail bone after a triple axel gone wrong, or gymnastics, where you can fall on your head. But this kind of verbal soft pedaling doesn't do a thing for a person facing a stage, and audience, and an hour or two with nowhere to hide. There is something in our psychology that is so afraid of looking bad in front of other people that our bodies get it confused with a survival response, as if our lives depended on it. Of course, occasionally, our careers might. Although, most of the time, most of the people, don't notice our mistakes. Abe Lincoln was right.

If you are dealing with nerves on a regular basis, however, one of the things that you start to notice is that the blamed things aren't consistent. Some times you will be so full of nervous energy that everything speeds up. You are listening faster, more carefully. Rapid runs that have a couple of bumps in them sound like the world fell apart because you didn't articulate that c# cleanly in the middle of all of those 32nd notes rushing up the keyboard, but when you listen to a recording of the performance later, it sounds fine. Mere mortals don't hear those kinds of mistakes. So long as no hummingbird critics attend the performance, nobody else will either.

It's an odd state to be in, but it seems to help control the subtlest details, which can make for a nice musical performance, although it generally feels pretty hellish at the time. I never used to think my performances were any good under those circumstances, but there is a simple reason for it: if the standards are up high enough, nobody's performance will pass muster. Ever. Hitting the right notes and the right rhythms is only the beginning. There are a thousand other ways to not measure up. A hummingbird performer will notice a thousand details that didn't make it, and stay up all night after the recital remembering them all. I should know. If there's another performance of the same material coming up, I suppose that isn't all bad. Take notes: refine. Suffer again.

On the other hand, our bodies are always reacting to a complex of other influences, like what we ate, whether we slept well, got exercise, are at one end of the cycle of energy and exhaustion or the other--keeping the science of being at peak fitness for a given performance just out of reach much of the time (besides not being able to schedule everything optimally). Sometimes the way the body deals with an upcoming performance is not to speed up but to slow down. Before the performance one is liable to be tired and apathetic. Usually that goes away shortly before hitting the stage, to be replaced by the aforementioned panic, but not always. A teacher of mine said this is the worst kind of nerves. He may be right: an apathetic self-defense may mean you aren't paying as much finely-tuned attention to all the details that make up a good performance. It is difficult, however, to judge on stage whether you are performing well or not.

For most people, the biggest nightmare about nerves is the debilitating kind: the ones that make you shake uncontrollably. I've had those. There is a very interesting dynamic at work, though, even in the midst of the kind of nerves that cause near panic: if you know your material well, very very well, it becomes the one place you can go to seek comfort in the midst of the chaos around you. You literally hang on to the piece as it progresses. Your muscles feel good doing the same things they've done hundreds of times; repetition of a well-ingrained pattern becomes a refuge in the stress. Fighting off distractions and living inside the piece is the only way to make it through. Sometimes you are hanging on for dear life. You can't literally do this, of course: one of the most difficult things about nerves is they can make you seek to control or constrict your limb movements, and if you are playing something that goes fast or leaps around, you have no choice but to let go. You can't hang on. You have to trust that your hands know what they are doing.

It is always great to feel that you are in control enough to be in the moment and in control of the material so that you can react to it as you are playing it on stage, but a great deal of what comes out in a performance happened in the practice room months earlier. Considering each phrase, memorizing each pattern for the hands and preparing a well-worn checklist for the mind, then the sheer number of repetitions of each small movement cause the muscles to remember their routes well. So well, in fact, that there have been times when I have absolutely panicked during a performance, sure that I was going to succumb to a pianists' greatest fear, memory loss, only to find, a second or two later, that my fingers were going on without me, doing what I had programmed them to do. The feeling of relief was immense, and helped me to reboot my mind and get it re-engaged in the performance. These are tiny dramas that the audience doesn't notice because the flow of the music is never actually interrupted, though they cause the performer much grief.

Which is why, of course, if you want to know how to deal with nerves, the best answer is to prepare, prepare, prepare your material so well that you can go on despite distractions, or panic, or forgetting (consciously, at least) half the details. You have to be able to play without your mind involved, and your mind has to be able to go on without your fingers. And you should know the large picture so you can keep going when the details go out the window, and know the details so well that they won't. This is redundancy, like having four engines on a jet in case three fail during the flight. You should be able to play the piece in the shower (without moving the piano in there), or with the score in your lap, or on the kitchen table without the music, or on all sorts of terrible pianos.

The way to deal with nerves is to know your message and what you are communicating. I am often afraid that, notes or not, that I won't have something worth while to say, which to me is worse than messing up a few notes. Dry, technically correct, unmoving performances seem worse than saying something and occasionally getting your tongue tangled in the passionate process.

That is also, by the way, why I put up with the ordeal of nerves in the first place. There are always people who think that I must not be nervous (frequent comment after a performance: "You looked like you were having so much fun up there!"). In fact, I am nervous most of the time, though, if I am playing for a small, uncritical audience I may be a bit less nervous than if I am playing at Carnegie Hall. However, the difficulty of what I am playing usually has more to do with that. A few months ago I was as nervous as I have been in years playing an offertory in church simply because the piece was quick enough and featured enough independent melodic lines (blast that Bach!) that I imagined if I got "off" I wouldn't be able to recover easily and would probably get completely lost and have to start again (disaster!) It was the most frightening three minutes I've known in a while! (Of course, being eight o'clock in the morning probably didn't help either.)

That, in fact, may be the biggest problem with nerves. They focus us on ourselves, and on our fear that we will fail in our attempt. What we ought to be focusing on is the music and what the composer wants to get across in combination with our own interpretive ideas about we think the piece has to say. It is a privilege and a joy to be able to share great music with others, and it is important to do it, early and often. That is why I go through the ordeal of nerves. I have done it frequently enough to recognize the process of being nervous, the kinds of nervousness, and to even regard playing music while nervous as a necessary part of learning the music--I expect the onslaught, and prepare for it.  No assuming that if I can play the piece well when I am practicing that I am somehow ready to do it on a stage! At the conservatory we had a weekly class in which we played our recital pieces for each other to test them before our recitals in a state of performance anxiety to see how our renderings fell apart when pressure was applied--it was like putting pottery in the oven to bake it. These days if I can't arrange a pre-performance I make a recording. I am always extremely nervous with the microphone on, even though I can do several takes and even edit out wrong notes in many cases. It is an irrational fear (as are nerves in general) and I use it to my advantage so that the piece when played live will be better than it was if I didn't go through ordeal by microphone. I find it always improves the performance. So do live performances. The piece always goes so much better the day after a recital (sigh).

It is the music, in the end, that makes it worth braving the fire for. Sharing that music, letting is speak to someone other than ourselves, which can only be accomplished by actually playing it for people, will always be accompanied by nerves, even if you've learned to deal with them. But not to take that risk is no alternative. It seems safer, but that safety comes at the price of losing our ability to communicate with one another, and thus, part of our humanity.

 

 

A Brief Survey of "Mom and Pop" Organists on the Internet
or, will the real organists please stand up?
posted February 10, 2012

Troll Youtube these days and you are bound to find endless stores of professional recordings somebody decided to share from their CD collection without asking the people who sank all that time and money into making the CD in the first place, and in some cases without even telling us who is playing on the recording. But there is an alternative.

There are people who, of their own volition, or with the help of friends, have posted their own recordings from their own church's organs. Now, we all know that just about anybody can stick a camera in front of themselves sitting in front of some instrument in their living room and send forth a poor rendition of their favorite tunes for anybody who gets stuck listening to them. Sometimes the camera is at a poor angle as well and we end up seeing rather too much of what we would rather not see and trying to forget the screeching sound of the high frequencies accompanied by gallons of room noise. But not all these folks are just some schmoes, nor is the recording equipment substandard. Some of them are quite good, professional organists with jobs at churches with some pretty serious pipe organs. That's who I'm talking about here. The reason I am talking about them is I find it unfortunate that the folks getting all the hits are the ones doing all the copyright violating when the actual artists themselves, trying to communicate directly with their audience (and voluntarily; that is, they are giving their recordings away themselves without having someone giving them away for them)--often these folks are getting very little attention at all. Let me introduce you to four of them I found on the internet recently:

Kerry Beaumont is organist at the Coventry Cathedral in England. I've never been there (I've never been to England at all unless you count Heathrow Airport and I don't) but from the videos you can see what a spacious place it is. Coventry (like most cathedrals) has two organs, a small portative and the large main organ whose pipes are on display on the walls of the cathedral, which is quite an alternative to hiding most of them in a pipe room or rooms. Mr. Beaumont's videos are getting around 200 hits in contrast to the thousands of hits some of the CD-collection-posters are getting which makes me think of a mom and pop store trying to compete with Walmart. The mom and pop items may be of higher quality but folks are still going to go to the place with the highest visibility, which is usually the result of quanitity--CD collectors post thousands of recordings, which is a bit more than most organist have time to post in the average year.  The CDs are also going to be of higher quality, since someone spent years practicing the pieces, and then they spent a year editing the thing to make it perfect as well as spending hundreds of man hours (and dollars) on other aspects of the product, though very often the sound quality of posts like Mr. Beaumont's--not to mention the performances themselves--aren't all that far behind. And there are things you won't get on the CDs. One is a chance to see the artists at work; another is the chance to communicate with them via the comment board. Besides getting to see all of those pipes you can watch Mr. Beaumont improvise. He seems to be working his way through the Psalms (the texts of which scroll by during the improvisations), although the most recent post is from last year. Perhaps Mr. Beaumont has gotten discouraged from lack of attention to his efforts and has decided not to bother anymore. Or he's just too busy at the moment. In any case, there are 14 videos up presently and I recommended you take a look and a listen.

Rob Stefanussen's channel might be the most flat out interesting of the four, and he is the only one getting nearly as many hits as some of the third party CD recording folks. I would imagine Mr. Stefanussen and I both know that is largely for non-musical reasons. Rob plays on a virtual organ he built himself. With the help of some complicated wiring, four synthesized keyboards and a pedal board, and software that gives him access to the recorded sounds of every key and stop from some of the world's great organs, he is able to sound as though he is playing at Notre Dame cathedral even though he is in his own living room. I won't begrudge him this; he is a very fine organist with the chops to deserve playing on those organs for real if given the chance. Meanwhile he is putting out recordings that have a high quality sound. There may be a certain amount of extra-musical pyrotechnics involved: for instance, a recording of Bach's "Wachet Auf" I just listened to interspersed shots of sunrises and swans for no apparent reason except to keep the audience from zoning out, but the playing is first rate so I don't really mind that much. It is not as though he surrounded himself with first-rate musicians to make his own meager playing sound better or spends most of his time talking about how great he is as many showmen have tended to do. So if most of the attention he is getting is because of the unusual parentage of his instrument, or if his videos play a bit to the folks who need a visual show because they can't concentrate on the music, that's not all bad--he deserves the attention, however he got it. Frankly, as long as the music is given a chance to speak for itself, unabridged, unadulterated, and played well, we can forgive a little magic, can't we, purists? Also, you can skip the visuals and just listen to high quality mp3s versions of each video. Mr. Stefanussen has been featured in an article about his fascinating organ setup called "Organist is phantom of his own living room" (please, can we knock off the phantom comparisons? If the pipe organ makes you think of the Phantom of the Opera every time you hear it, you need to get to know it better) and keeps up a lively correspondence with his listeners on Youtube.

Gerard van Reenen is Dutch and has a much smaller audience. Where Stefanussen embraces the latest technology when it comes to instrument making, and Kerry Beaumont plays modern sounding improvisations, Mr. van Reenan seems entirely devoted to music of 200 or more years ago. He is in possession of a clavichord, one of the forerunners of the piano (though less well known than the harpsichord. The clavichord was made for small rooms only and is very expressive though it puts forth little sound). One of the most interesting thing about his channel is a collection of the early piano sonatas of Mozart. For many people music and musicians are like exotic foreign lands. I admit having this experience while listening to the clavichord renderings of the Mozart sonatas, pieces I know well on the modern piano but have rarely if ever heard on this older instrument. The interpretations are slow as molasses by comparison with most modern performances, though the player explains why they are slow as molasses, and also why they are so soft (and if you really listen to them you find that they work well this way). Generally I wish persons who post recordings would communicate more about the music and about the music making process--and themselves. Often with CD collections posters there is next to no documentation--so as not to leave a trail, probably! With artists operating legally there is a better chance you will learn something of value about the music, though many performers are by nature not given to verbal effusions; added to the fact that the internet is a veritable Babel of different languages. Mr. van Reenan's remarks are limited, but his few words are well-chosen (and in a second language to boot; thank you for that!) It is certainly worth hearing the wonderful organs of the north countries as well, and experiencing his enthusiasm as he plays.

Organist James Pollard (from Amsterdam) seems to be more reserved about comments--he has an organist post which I presume is in Amsterdam, and largely limits his playing to the standard repertoire--but not quite. I came across a video that uses Hauptwerk virtual organ technology to play a wedding march he created which uses "A Whiter Shade of Pale" during the entrance of the bride (maybe he and I could exchange stories of interesting things we've been asked to play at weddings). If you thought organists were technophobes who were buried in the past and could only play Bach, shunned contact with people, and weren't friendly, there is something in each of these persons to challenge those notions, I think. Who would assume that pipe organists were embracing the latest technology? Or using the internet. But here we are. 

I'm jealous. Isn't it great?

 

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