Friday, November 17, 2017

In the Midst of Life...

"At the midpoint of life's journey, I found myself in a dark forest, for the clear path was lost"
                                                               ---Dante, Inferno (prologue)

I like to plan ahead whenever possible, and since 90 seems like a good life span, I thought, when approaching 45, that I should plan for a concert which I planned to call the "halftime show." Some wags might point out that there is no guarantee that I would have gotten that right; perhaps I would be enjoying myself too much at 90 and decide to live longer, but in such a case I had a ready answer for them, borrowed from the world of sport: "sudden death overtime."

That would have gotten a mirthful response had I gotten to opine that into a microphone at the planned but ungiven concert, but, as it happens, I was a little busy trying to fend off an early end to the festivities. Cancer struck.

It was one of the better kinds, if you are planning on getting it. Rare, but no more a friend of chemotherapy than was its host. The thing did as promised, and melted away, which was good, because when we found it it was the size of a small football in my chest, trying its best to exercise eminent domain on my heart and lungs. I couldn't take a regular breath, and my exercise regimen was going from Marathon to Couch, which is backwards.

I spent the better part of March 2016 preparing for an early grave, and then, when the diagnosis came, trying to deal with a very aggressive program of chemotherapy, designed for getting rid of large tumors in no uncertain terms, for those with lots of life ahead of them if only they can survive being poisoned for a few months.

I have spent most of my life fearing chemotherapy out of the corner of my mind. I've heard nasty things about it; I hoped that some of those miraculous advances in cancer treatment that we keep hearing about would have taken hold if and when it got to me. But alas, no.

There are many side effects which I now know from experience. Every system in your body is turned upside down. You can't sleep because you have to evacuate fluid every hour; also because some of the pills to take care of the nausea make you very restless and others very sleepy so that you are generally both at once. You can't tell if you are hungry, so you just have to guess, force it down, and if it comes back up you were wrong. Then there is pain in your bones, your chest, your muscles, and, if you are as lucky as I was, you can't stand light and have to keep your eyes tightly shut for days at a time while you lie there, unable to pass the time with a screen of some sort.

The bulk of that turmoil ended over a year ago, and I've written about it on another blog. My rehashing it here is simply to serve as notice as to why it has been so long since my last confession blog and to further explain why, for the next month or so I plan to blog only on Fridays, and then in a largely autobiographical manner, as if I have some catching up to do before deciding when to attempt to return to what this blog was originally designed to do--share piano music on Mondays, help musicians on Wednesdays, and discuss organs and church music on Fridays. It still seems a bit daunting as I write this, but I'm feeling better now, and I've been fairly productive lately, so...perhaps. One of the surprises may have been how long it has taken me to fully recover, and how many times I thought I was back on my feet only to find a couple of months later that I was more recovered than the time before which retroactively meant I wasn't in as good shape as I thought I was. This time, I thought, I'm Really recovered!

In the middle of all the muddle we moved so my wife could take up new employment in another city, which meant I had to leave my jobs and community and start over. I'm still working on it. Next time I will probably talk about Pittsburgh.

Pianonoise the website has had a rebirth as well. I will update that on Fridays also. It has a calendar of events (I have just had two concerts and two more are coming up this semester), a weekly recording, which for now involves recycling of a lot of material (31 hours) generated in Illinois, with the promise of more to come from Pittsburgh in the new year, and links to various articles, new and old, and of course, this blog.

It will be good to share life and music with you again.

Friday, July 15, 2016

just checking in

This has been, if you've been reading the blog for a while, an odd semester.

Back in March I was diagnosed with cancer, which, as I mentioned in The Temerity of a Tumor, might well require an interruption in this blog. And well it did. Fortunately it was a type of cancer that is not likely to require such an interruption--or early termination--in my life itself.

After experiencing nearly every drug-related side effect, including one very rare one that messed with my vision (severe photophobia) and another with my hearing (which seems to be temporary) it was pretty clear I wasn't going to be up to my usual schedule. And what good days there were I spent updating folks about my condition on a special cancer-related blog. This didn't leave much time or energy for this one, although there have been a few entries between now and then.

Typically about this time of the year I take time off of this blog for the summer months, and, considering I am just beginning to feel normal again after what might, if I'm lucky be my last treatment, it could be a chance to get back into the blog. Or it could be a chance to rest.

I'm choosing to rest. Also, we've moved in the middle of all this, and I need to start looking for jobs and meeting people and resuming life in my new environment.

As I write this, I haven't had the tests yet that will hopefully pronounce me cured of this, so my struggle isn't actually over. I'll know that in a few weeks. In the meantime, I am updating the homepage of itself, every Tuesday, with a different recording and several articles. And new recordings continue to come in every week, through the 1st of August, when I'll be taking a break from them, too. They all date from before the cancer, but hadn't been released yet. That's what can be gained from working ahead.

Anyhow, I hope you are in good health and are having a pleasant summer (or winter, depending on where you are). Regardless of what happens in a few weeks, I plan to see you in the fall, most likely around the 1st of October. Let's enjoy this thing called music while we live and breathe.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Sin, sin, sin!

The following is Pianonoise's first, and so far only, book review:

There are two images to take note of on the back of Steve Shoemakers' new book, "A Sin a Week" (Mayhaven Publishing). One shows a heavily bearded, stern looking preacher who could have led an 1890s temperance rally, railing against the dangers of demon rum. The other shows him, less bearded, sitting at home, eating an entire bowl of frosting, licking the spoon. Does he preach? Sometimes. Does he have a wicked sense of humor? Sometimes. And there is plenty of subtle wisdom in between.

A good example of that is the poem that begins the book, "Lie." Steve's titles are usually what we can safely assume are the particular sins being addressed. What we can't always safely assume is whether these are things to avoid or not. As the prologue puts it, these are [poems] "for folks with the inclination to sin and ability to do wrong, but who have run out of bad ideas." Surely not, Steve? A preacher actually encouraging us to go wrong? But in the opening strophes we get a kind of apologia for sin. And not the cloven hoofed, oh come on, everybody's doing it variety of defense, or some version of I've got it coming to me, which we could all see coming a mile away, and know with our superior moral compasses just had to be something good people wouldn't do, but a much more sinister, snake-in-the-garden kind of argument. Riffs on the theme: this will actually be good for other people, not just for selfish you. If you want to love your neighbor, and who shouldn't, wouldn't you want to lie if it will make everybody feel better about themselves? We lose our innocence only later in the poem when we realize that that could also mean everybody else is telling little white lies to us, too. That just isn't right!

A more telling adumbration of this goodness-of-sin argument is the justification of greed in the 7th poem. The speaker beings by complaining that somebody else got something they should have, too, but inversely ("I don't want too much, I just want my fair share.") It is hard not to hear the voice of Lucy van Pelt exclaiming "All I want is what's coming to me! All I want is my fair share!" But then Steve adds one word to take it out of its self-centered orbit: "Equality." It's all about justice, now, isn't it? Are you sure that's a bad thing? Or is it just self-justifying rhetoric? C. S. Lewis said that he was never less sure about a doctrine of the faith than after he had just defended it in his own words and thoughts.

Not that all the poems are subtle. When it comes to themes like televangelists, ambitious politicians, or conformity, the poems are solidly in the don't-try-this-at-home camp. The author doesn't need to work very hard to have this reader nodding along comfortably, and they do at least provide a contrast with the other poems, which, although they aren't in themselves the more interesting of the bunch, do keep us off balance as to whether or not we really want to try, or not try, a particular sin. Being uncertain about the advisability of a given sin encourages us to think.

The book doesn't actually call these selections "poems," as the author has pointed out in a radio interview, and often they neither rhyme, nor show the kind of metric discipline one might expect from a poem. Some of them have a mostly prosey quality. But there are times when a poetic technique shines through, and despite what you may have assumed in English class, this can shed light on the poem's meaning, as well. Poem nine is called "Follow" and involves a curious rhyming technique. Twice the poem devolves to near slogans. "Have faith. Do not pass or brake" it exhorts. Only faith doesn't quite rhyme with brake, does it? (it's a vowel rhyme, I guess). And later "Follow the leader. Peace comes from trust and order." Another pair (leader/order) that doesn't quite rhyme. Which makes us just uncomfortable enough to wonder, should we really be following this leader after all? It seems like a smooth ride--slogans always do, and it is often because they rhyme. But in the realm of the not-quite, we have to pause. And, of course, the sarcasm makes it a bit more obvious. This is supposed to be a sin, but if it wasn't at least a little inviting, why the need to warn away from it? Or have the curiosity to indulge?

Which brings up the work of illustrator T. Brian Kelly. Often Kelly can simply take something from the poem literally to make it humorous, as he does here with the last line ("decisions pass as easily as fence posts") showing a line of people, heads buried in newspapers, sitting side-saddle on a fence in a long line. Generally he follows something from the poem pretty closely, which is often startling enough, unless the poem itself takes an obvious line on whether or not we should view this sin with moral outrage or more ambiguity. A few of the sins even double as religious practices. But then, how we react to the sins may themselves be sins. In one poem, Steve describes a neighbor's car in detail, without apparent jealousy, until the last line, when he sniffs in regard to the high powered headlights that his neighbor leaves on even during the day "when the sun is shining you can't even see them." There are several poems about cars, and one of my favorite lines in the book is the exhortation that concludes the preceding poem to "shoot the tires relentlessly. " It's the relentlessly that gets me. Often it's just that one word that turns a poem into something great. 

Visitors to Steve's Facebook page know about his penchant for limericks, which makes it all the more curious that he saves the form for the last poem in the collection. The limerick trips along in its rhythmically hypnotic way, perfect for traipsing along happily on the road to hell (and, happily, more book sales!), which is, after all, paved with good intentions. It might take a preacher to get us to think about where we're going and whether or not we ought to change course before we regret it. Most preachers would attack the problem with righteous fury, fulminating against a long list of things not to do. Steve's method is to get down and wade in there with us. With humor, insight, and a lot of questioning, these poems have more to them than meets the initial eye. Steve has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and does not have a lot of time with us. He has complained that this group of poems is "not much for a life's work." But besides the decades of pastoral care, the lives he's touched, the good he's done in his community, and countless things that one person won't even know, this slender volume, finally published after 25 years, contains a lot more than a word count. A good poem presents a lot in concentrated form. These poems are short--rarely more than a page (in fact, only one requires you to turn one; another is less than  a word long). But even some of our greatest poets (T. S. Eliot comes to mind) published very little. Although epics have been written in meter, just as often the reader is left with few words and much to think about, inviting continual engagement with the same poem or poems. Send for a copy--you'll want to keep it on a near shelf. For future reference. Just in case you can't kick the sin thing after a mere 12 months--or you don't want to.

A Sin a week is published by Mayhaven publishing, and is available from or by writing to Mayhaven publishing, P. O, Box 557, Mahomet, IL 61853

Monday, May 23, 2016

out for a walk -- be back changed

Two composers went for a walk.

This isn't a joke. It just sounds like the setup for a joke. Let me tell it to you first.

The composers names were Johannes Brahms and Gustave Mahler. Mahler was a strapping youth full of energy and the standard cocktail of arrogance and assurance that comes with not having had your abilities tested sufficiently in the real world. Brahms was near the end of his life. He had accomplished much but he was naturally skeptical about the direction music was taking now that he had had his own battles and won many of them. He had his ideas about music and had naturally disagreed with most of this contemporaries, most of whose music he didn't like, but now that the next generation was exploring innovations he had fresh reason to be unhappy about it. After all, in his day, music had been good. Everything had been better. Now he was old, and dying, and ready to complain about it.

They crossed a bridge, and Mahler pointed excitedly to the stream flowing by. He told the old master that it was the future of music, flowing past; time to catch it before it went by. He seemed to imply that it was headed for a glorious future on its way to an ocean of possibility.

Brahms acidly replied that nobody knew that it might simply flow into a bog.

 Most of us of us take walks for exercise. Few of us, I imagine, think of anything as serious as the future of our professions, or of the direction of human society, at least in any deep way. It depends on whether we ponder issues like this in general, of course, in which case a walk is a great way to do it, but besides the creative activity of our inner lives, it helps to have a walking partner who can engage one in a stimulating conversation or two.

The walk of these two composers illustrates more than just the battle between the new and the old, or that everyone has something to worry about. It should be a reminder to us of how uncritically we often swallow music. That is, if we swallow it at all. Most of our species doesn't listen to much music that is called "classical" to start with. The term is mostly there, it seems, to be a wall to safely hide the contents behind, out of the way of the folks who aren't ready for the challenge.

But if you go to the museum, the concert hall, the gallery, switch on the radio or television, pop in a recording, you experience something of that vast stream of human thought that has been going on in musical form for centuries. A plethora of traditions, ideas, philosophies, many of which fought bitterly against each other as contemporaries, vying for supremacy, others that rebelled against the traditions of the previous generations, or struggled valiantly to uphold them in the face of changing tides of fashion, or tried to synthesize what they found valuable in each. National styles fought battles by proxy, or envious rulers imported foreign influences and allowed themselves to be conquered in music by foes whose adjacent borders they would defend to the last breath militarily. It is a long, constantly inviting, constantly evolving, ever surprising story.

And yet, if you go to an art museum and don't read the plaques on the wall, or to a concert hall, and don't notice the program notes, or learn something about the persons and societies behind the production of the music, you miss all that. You miss the argument, and from a distance, it can all look peaceful, which might be how you'd like it to be. But you won't really know.

In this short series, we've gone out for a few walks. We've sampled a bit of the late Medieval, the German Baroque on piano and organ, and even a bit from a 20th century impressionist. And all because we went for a walk. And noticed a few things along the way.

If you missed the first four installments in the "Walking tour", here they are:

Friday, April 29, 2016

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord

What was he thinking? What was in Francois Couperin's head while he was writing "Mass for the Parishes?" Specifically, what did he have in mind for the 2nd verse of the Sanctus, which happens to be what I'll be "feeding" my congregation this weekend. I'll be doing it in absentia, thanks to our playback system. I actually recorded it in December, while working my way through the entire mass, most of which you can hear at pianonoise on the Listen page. And since our pipe organ was rewired in 2014, it can record any data from the console, included stop changes, swell and crescendo pedal movement, and of course, all the notes. So even though I'll likely still be in the hospital for a second cycle of chemotherapy, I can still share music with my congregation, which feels pretty good.

It also hasn't stopped me from asking questions, one of which I shared with the congregation, courtesy of the church bulletin. The question was: why? Given that solemnity in worship was the order of the day, and still often is, in worship, given that this was the Catholic Church in the 18th century, and given the tight guidelines laid down by the archbishop for any organist who wrote a mass, which surely would have not encouraged much levity, what would be the cause of such a light, pleasant little piece? I'll let you listen to it before I prattle on too much. It's only a minute and twenty seconds:


Couperin's Mass is, mostly, much more solemn than this. Even the Gloria, the part of the Mass which is filled with praise for the glory of God, spends most of its time in a minor key. So this seems odd.

First, a little background. Couperin's Mass would have been part of the Mass celebration of the Catholic church. The way that worked, was that monks would have chanted each verse of each part of the mass, starting with the Kyrie (confession), then the Gloria (praise), the Credo (statement for beliefs), the Sanctus (glory to God), the Agnus Dei (communion), benediction and dismissal. The organist would play a short piece after each chanted verse, alternating with the singing, except for the Credo, during which the organist was forbidden to play (hence there is no Credo section in Couperin's Mass) and making up for it with a long offertory afterward.

Part of what would determine the character, as well as the key (and the mode--major or minor) would be the chants that came before. Another thing that the organist was required to do was to use the chant melody in at least the first verse of each section, per orders of the archbishop. Keep that in mind.

Now I'll try to touch on a huge subject very briefly. It has to do with appropriateness in church music. We'll at least limit it to French organists. We'll start with the most egregious example I can think of. Lefebure-Wely wrote music for his church that even his fellow organists thought sounded much too cavalier and popular. But he was popular with his parishioners; priests could clench their teeth all they wanted. Here is his most famous postlude:


Lefebure-Wely comes much later than Couperin, however, about 150 years. He lived after the French revolution which tried to stamp out the Catholic Church in France, and after Napoleon halfheartedly brought it back. If there was ever a time for cynicism in France, this was it. Let's get a little closer to Couperin.

Before the revolution (though he lived through it as well) was a fellow named Balbastre. He was very popular with his congregation, too, playing jigs and waltzes during masses, and annoying the priests, who sometimes forbade him from playing, despite the fact that whenever he did, the church was always packed. Was it jealousy? A sense of injured propriety? He didn't seem to be taking the mass that seriously, after all. Here is a set of variations he wrote on a Christmas carol:


This was also a tradition in France. And while Balbastre was born only 9 years before Couperin died, we can trace the tradition back to the generation after Couperin, by way of Daquin, who also wrote a pretty jiggy version of a Noel. He was born 26 years after Couperin, so we're getting a bit closer.


Then there is Nicolas deGrigny, who was born only 6 years after Couperin, and wrote this gigue-like verse of a hymn to the Holy Spirit:


So it is not like the French couldn't cut a rug--or a gigue--even in church. The priests may not have liked it, but they don't seem to have been able to stop it. Still, Couperin, seems to have been relatively well behaved. The last section of his massive offertory from the same mass is nearly in the same style as the deGrigny we just heard, but the mass is mostly pretty somber. If you're in the mood, you can hear most of it in the listening room in the organ section, under Couperin.

And then there is the fact that there are two Sanctus pieces. I don't know exactly where they fit, but the first one might fit after this text:

"Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Power and Might. Heaven and Earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the Highest!:


That's pretty majestic, actually. Full stops and lots of heavy sound. But then the Sanctus goes on:

"Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!"

Now is it possible that the composer wanted to change the mood to one of joy at the coming of the Savior, as opposed to the majesty and glory of an awesome, and fearsome, God?



As usual, I'm left asking more questions, and without the time to really delve into the subject, aka read books and articles and generally do more research. I've a feeling I'll be getting to that, especially as I have less time to play the music. And as musicologist sometimes don't ask these questions it may take time to connect with more curious souls who are interested, not just in the music itself, but how it worked in its original context. The same way people can spend all of their time wondering how the Bible speaks to us today without wondering what it was intended to mean to its first hearers (which is after all much harder to find out).

This weekend, my congregation gathers around the communion table, and, without realizing it perhaps, speaks those same ancient words that form the Sanctus, as old as the oldest Catholic Mass, still preserved in our Methodist worship. And the piece I'll be playing in absentia during communion is nearly in the same place it would have gone in Couperin's church, only a little later and without the chanting and the incense. There is a connection, but it is of course not an unbroken tradition. This is a varied world, and the poor priests who try to make it uniform never manage to succeed in quelling a variety of styles, innovation, exuberance, and criticism for their efforts. But things don't entirely fly apart, either. There is still a center. And, if we look hard enough, we can still find it.

Friday, April 8, 2016

The temerity of a tumor

It's called a mediastinal seminoma. The first word refers to the region of the chest directly behind the sternum--right in the upper middle--, and the second is a kind of germ tumor which typically grows there. Not too typically, understand. It is rare enough to be a bit off-the-beaten-path medically and not so rare that nobody knows how to treat it but at least there is a chance they'll name it after you. Call it medium rare.

I mention this because I am currently hosting one of my own. Like many tumors in this class, it has grown quite large because it sets up shop in one of the few parts of the body with a nice bit of real estate undeveloped by vital organs, and expands until it has run out of chest cavity, finally making its presence known by trying to bump your lungs and heart and whatever else it assumes is unnecessary out of the way so it can take over everything.

I have a problem with that.

Fortunately, so did my doctors, although the story of my first month spent with the knowledge of a large mass in my chest did not go as pleasantly as I had hoped. It was March 2nd on which, fed up with a cough that just would not go away all winter and into the spring (it started in November, but as several people in my environment also had coughs that weren't going away it blended nicely with its surroundings and I assumed if I just waited a while it would finally clear up)--my patience gone completely, and my ability to run without an unusual amount of effort and exhaustion particularly at short distances finally being the last straw, that I visited a clinic nearby and complained of a "chornic cough" (OK, they mis-typed it) and a "tightness of chest." When an exam with a stethoscope didn't turn any problems up I was sent for a chest x-ray, and that's when they found it. Something that shouldn't be there, was there.

What it actually was took a long time to find out. First a CT scan took a more three-dimensional image of my chest. But the biopsy was what took so long, and around that, not the test, but the paperwork, and the second opinion from a large and respected clinic up north (Mayo) and than some more dragging on paperwork, while I called periodically and tried to figure out which of the 8 doctors who appeared in my chain of care for various reasons (some of whom I had never actually met or received any care from) might have gotten the results of the test.

By this point we were pushing up against Palm Sunday and Easter, which puts a special pressure on a church organist. I thought my time might be very limited, even, given the size of the thing, my time on this earth, but especially, as soon was we had a name for it, we'd start treatment, and that surely meant disruption. Either chemotherapy, which would cause an uncertain amount of it, or surgery, which would put me completely out of the picture for a month or two. Flat on my back, recovering from being pulled open like a lobster. But the mass gone completely. Perhaps.

I had to tell the staff at the church, and my other employers, that we had to have someone on standby if I suddenly was unable to perform my duties. And at least secretly, I thought, I just somehow have to make it through Easter. I can't leave my church high and dry on Easter Sunday, of all things. Just though Easter! Please.

Which in some way made those foot-dragging doctors useful, because it wasn't until after Easter that I got my results. And then another week to correct an early mistake I'd made trying to save money--I was out of network, and had to get my records transferred from one oncologist to the other, which took another week's time.

So on Match Day, when Kristen finally found out, after most of a year, where she had been selected to do her medical residency, after a long period of uncertainly, knowing we were going to move away but not knowing yet where, we finally had answers. A destination, a goal, a place for me to start looking for jobs. Future less cloudy. On our way to with the path well marked. Oh, and I might have cancer....

But I got through Easter, and somehow played about as well as usual, three epic services in one morning and an evening choir practice on top of it, no time to nap in between because we have people to see (I may have squeezed in a few zzzs after that). Alleluia!

And then I had a Baron Richtoffen moment.* I told the staff at our next meeting how glad I was that I had made it through Easter. And that, so far, has been my last Sunday! Well, I'm still glad Easter came early, and I still think it is much better to miss a Sunday or two that is not a major holiday.

I had a virus last weekend with a fever which conveniently robbed me of my voice on Friday, and the rest of me on Saturday and Sunday. And this was the week that we had decided to tell the whole church of my condition. The pastors had to do it while I was not present and I asked them to please let the church know that my absence was not due to the advanced stages of the disease, but an unrelated virus that was causing a fever. I'm sure some folks panicked anyway. The next day they sent me the entirety of the altar flowers (they normally divide these up between shut-ins--so sorry, guys!) care of the office manager, Janelle, who said that the ladies would have brought them to my house themselves, but were afraid they'd cry!

(I'm not at death's door yet, guys)

Meanwhile, we were trying to figure out just how bad things were, or weren't. Once I got to see my oncologist, things changed very quickly. He's been championed as "aggressive." He wanted me in the hospital the next day to start chemotherapy while simultaneously being available for all of the tests to determined whether it had spread. To our relief, we found it had not. It was just a very large tumor in my chest. About the size of a nerf football.

A seminoma is a strange type of cancer. It grows quickly, which makes it easier to treat. Seminomas can be shrunk very well with chemotherapy. It may only take three months. I have been told my cancer is very treatable, and I'll probably be cured completely (though that's not guaranteed). In the meantime, I still have to go through at least four cycles of chemotherapy. I'll have some good days and some bad days. Which is where this gets relevant to my blog readers.

Some of you are pianists and organist who do not read this blog to find out about me personally. I also have many Facebook friends and family who sometimes read this blog only when it contains information about me. Usually I'm here to share music with anyone who will listen and hopefully find it fascinating. But on the theory that music and life are connected, and given the major transitions we are going through this year, I occasionally get autobiographical on you. This particular journey might entail some inconsistencies in this blog. For instance:

1) I may find it next to impossible to get myself out of bed some days and unable to think straight enough to put sentences together because of the effects of the drugs and therefore will not be publishing the blog regularly for the remainder of the semester.

2) I may find that blogging is about the only thing I CAN do with any consistency, or on good days I may write several, set them on auto-publish, and proceed marvelously uninterrupted.

I can't say yet. Today is my third day in the hospital and third day of chemotherapy. So far it has not had negative effects on me. The anti-nausea drugs they are giving me are working wonderfully, and my kidneys are doing their jobs wonderfully, too. I won't be running any marathons this year and I have even stopped practicing the piano and organ. But since I work ahead I can still share new recordings with you through the end of the semester so long as I can think straight and stay awake long enough. Which isn't the problem right now--I haven't been getting enough sleep!

Those of you who are friends and family members, or concerned blog readers, can go to a place called and look for a fellow named michael andy hammer (the middle name is a good way to find the right me). I'll be putting all future cancer-related information there and not going on Facebook or this blog with it, so that we can continue to live our musically rich, intellectually curious lives as well as we can to share our passions with as many people as we can for as long as we can. All of us.

*I read a children's book once about the "red baron." Despite his success, he was never happy--never thought he had enough kills. First he becomes an ace--you need 10 kills for that--and the kills keep piling up. 20, 30, 40---I think he get all the way to 80. And they have a banquet for him and he drinks the toast, and says, "80 kills. Now that is something" as if satisfied with himself for the first time. And the next time he goes up in a plane, he gets killed. Moral: don't get complacent!

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

No place for the timid

There's a little bromide that used to be very popular on wedding programs, that, like most really popular bits of sentiment, didn't sit well with me. It was meant to be really nice, of course:

Don't lead me, I may not follow
Don't follow me, I may not lead
Just walk beside me and be my friend

Which sounds simple and lovely, but doesn't really work in a marriage or anywhere else. There are times when you have to lead the other person, times when the other person leads you, and yes, times when you both walk leisurely into the sunset together holding hands and everything works out nicely.

I bring this up because I think accompaniment works the same way.

First of all, the chairman of the department of said accompanying in college hated the word. She preferred to call it "collaboration." That does sound like a more equal term in some ways, but it still needs to be understood correctly.

There were folks who joined the "collaborative piano" department because they were too shy to be soloists, much the way violists are sometimes people who don't play the violin well enough or lack confidence. That doesn't really work in either case.

That's because a collaborator has to have the boldness of a soloist, mixed with the discretion of a respectful partner. In other words, you've got to have the ability to take charge and the wisdom to know when that's necessary.

There are some places, of course, when the choir stops singing, or the instrumentalist stops playing, and you have an interlude all to yourself. Some of the wallflower accompanists in college would get nervous and make a mess of passages like that because suddenly they didn't have the security of someone else playing along.

You could be an organist playing an introduction to a hymn or a pianist playing a violin sonata in which the piano plays the opening measures alone. Either way, you have to set the tempo, you have to set the mood, and you have to deal with the fact that people are listening to you alone, and that any mistake in the piano part is going to be noticeable. But then, that's usually true of my situation anyway. Even when I'm collaborating with the 70 voice choir, I figure that if a false piano note develops, it will be obvious who did it. No hiding behind 5 other tenors!

You've got to have the guts to be wrong in order to be right. You can't wait for somebody else to start the piece, or hide behind their sound. In fact, you often have to be ready to equal or even outplay your choir or soloist.

Heresy! they all cry. An accompanist should always be softer than the soloist or choir. That's why they are an accompanist.

Not true. There is also a line, a chord, something that is an important part of the music that needs to be heard. It may be a small percentage of the notes on the page. It usually is. But one of my most important jobs is to recognize those places. It may be that the composer has given the piano alone a chord on the downbeat of the measure and the entire choir comes in on beat two. In that case, that chord has to be the equal in volume to the whole choir or it will sound musically wrong, and it needs to have sufficient vigor to give the choir a secure sense of the rhythm, so they can bounce off of the beat that they don't get to sing.

Changes in harmony that are given to the piano, or to the rhythmic inflection--if the musical information is not in the solo part, than it must be audible. The clarity of the musical argument depends on it.

And if it is redundant--if the soloist or choir is already giving out the information (i.e., singing the same notes)--I back way down or leave those notes out altogether, to let my partners shine out. Unless they turn out to need help, of course, in which case I offer as little as is needed to help them achieve their independence!

One of the best compliments I've received is from the choir members who have said "you make us sound better" because I think it illustrates what I hope is true about my approach to accompaniment. To be solid and secure and to let your choir or soloist shine forth when they are in fine form, giving them strategic help when they are not, and, without drowning them, serving the music such that the important notes come through clearly no matter who has them.

I sometimes hear that the problem with other accompanists is that they think they are soloists. Now here's where it gets tricky. I've been talking about accompanists as if being soloists is a useful skill. I still think so. The problem is in what kind of soloist we are talking about. A good soloist to me is one who listens. Even when playing by yourself, you have to balance the different parts of the music and be sensitive to the musical material, bringing some things up and some down. Often what emerges with persons who cannot accompany well is that they really don't listen very well. Because the only real difference between balancing a solo sonata and playing in an ensemble is that some of the parts that you are listening to, you aren't initiating yourself. But if you are used to listening, to liberating music from your own physical motion, it doesn't really matter. It is just as important or unimportant regardless of where it is coming from. Besides, even in a solo piece, there are often places where the soloist is playing an accompanying figure, as in several piano concertos. A soloist can never escape the need to be a collaborator any more than a person can live completely apart from society. And an accompanist can't avoid being a soloist, either.

But then, I do plenty of both kinds of playing, so I guess I would think that way, wouldn't I?