Friday, May 30, 2014

organ announcement

The following announcement appeared this week in our church's daily email, and also in the bulletins at the traditional Sunday morning services at Faith UMC this weekend (for Sunday, June 1):

This summer the Faith UMC pipe organ will undergo some major refurbishing, largely to correct a situation that has existed since the organ was installed in the mid 1980s. This concerns the electronic connections between the keys and the pipes, as well as the system which relays information from the console to the pipe room. At that time, the organ builders used an experimental technology for their electronic circuitry which they quickly abandoned when it was found to be ineffective, and for which they no longer make new parts. For years, whenever one of these parts needed to be replaced on our organ, the Buzard organ company would find a replacement from the dwindling supply of parts taken from defunct pipe organs. Eventually there will be no more replacement parts. For many years, this band-aid approach has been taken to correct the immediate problem; a more comprehensive action will finally cure it before it is too late (worst-case scenario: eventually the organ ceases to function properly and there is nothing we can do about it because there are no replacement parts). 

There has also been a dramatic increase this past year in the occurrence of random "dead notes"-- playing a note and getting no sound (often with no warning). This related issue will also be fixed by the action we are taking this summer.

The Buzard organ company will replace the current console with a new one which will both strengthen and update the present electronic relay system. This will not affect the sound or size of the organ, or require any changes to the organ pipes or pipe room, but only the playing console. The work will take place in July and August. During that time, the organ will not be available for our use. June 30th will be the last Sunday with the present organ console in place. The refurbished organ will make its debut in September.

-Dr. Michael Hammer, Organist

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I am sharing this information with my blog readers for two reasons: 1) over the summer, on Fridays, I will be writing a series of blogs which I will invite my congregation to read. These are designed to educate and promote appreciation for the wonderful instrument we have in our sanctuary and the pipe organ in general. They will also keep us all abreast of the work as it proceeds, and whet our appetites for the sound of the organ when it is returned to us after an absence of over two months. 

2) if you are not from my congregation, you get to come along for the ride! I've learned a lot about organs in recent years and am looking forward to learning a lot more. 

The blog series will really warm up in July, when the organ console disappears from among us. We will have a wonderful Steinway piano to lead us in worship, or course, but I'm sure we will still miss the organ. Anyhow, this will be quite an adventure. I'm looking forward to it.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Have you met my friend Hieronymus?

June 8th is Pentecost Sunday and while I'll be playing something different in church I couldn't help pay a visit to a familiar friend from years past.

It was Pentecost 2004 when I first made the acquaintance of one Hieronymus Praetorius and his jovial setting of "Veni Creator Spiritus," based on the standard plainchant for the day. It sparked an interest in Renaissance organ music, which I have noticed a lot of my fellow organists do not share (!) and which has caused me to look into the organ music of also Michael and Jacob Praetorius (not necessarily all related to each other).

So this may be new for you, but I have the pleasure of renewing acquaintance with an old friend whenever I play it. It was originally part of the mono catalog from 2004-2011--in fact, I made two recordings, five years apart. Both of these went down with the old catalog when I started over in stereo in 2011, and I've been trying to fill in old literature ever since when time permits.

There are three verses--the tune is in slow motion in the pedals, for which I've used trumpets. Enjoy!

Praetorius, Hieronymus: Veni Creator Spiritus

verse 1             verse 2           verse 3

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Thinking organically

The organ is a terrific instrument for problem solvers. All of those buttons, knobs, pedals and whatsajigits can be combined in all kinds of terrific ways to create all sorts of different effects. There may be any numbers of jobs, but there are endless numbers of ways to get the jobs done.

On the other hand, this is precisely the sort of thing that scares the bejeebers out of young pianists-turned-organists. I remember the look on the face of one young lady pianist I coaxed to try the organ. The first time she sat at the bench I saw the same look of panic I've seen on the faces of countless individuals when faced with all of those buttons, knobs, pedals and whatsajigits. It was a face that said, gee, I really hope I don't accidentally hit the wrong button and blow up the whole church!

I've been playing the organ for nearly thirty years now and I've yet to accidentally hit the destruct button, so I imagine we're all pretty safe. It's possible that our organ doesn't even have one of those things.

Once you start to get the hang of all of those bells and whistles, though, you find that there is enormous room to experiment with sounds and sound combinations, and also just to find ways to make life a little easier.

This morning I was playing a funeral, which generally means I'm improvising. This is nothing difficult, just soft hymn settings with the occasional interlude. It was the end of the service and I was a bit tired, and not feeling particularly coordinated, even though I wasn't trying to do anything earth-shatteringly difficult. But in my mind's ear I wanted to put the melody of the next verse in the tenor voice, with a mildly cheesy mixture combination over a flutely accompaniment.

In the old days that would have meant to play the melody with the left hand on the upper manual, and the accompaniment with the right hand since it was mostly higher. There would be some crossing of the hands at times, but it isn't something I haven't done before. However, I may have mentioned that it's been a long week and I wasn't sure I was really up to not messing this up.

This is where fun with knobs comes to the rescue. Instead of playing the keys in their proper octave with the left hand trying not to come up against the right, I played it an octave higher with the right hand. But with an organistic slight-of-knob it didn't matter.

That's because we have a sub-coupler. It's the knob at the top of the picture below, marked "Swell 16." What that does is add the lower octave to the note you are actually playing. But I didn't want both octaves sounding at once, so I used the "unison off" knob next to it. That turns OFF the note you are actually playing, keeping the octave below. So I could play the Ab above middle C and what everyone heard was the Ab below middle C. Voila! Which made the entire passage easier because not only was I feeling particularly right-handed at the time, it also meant my hands wouldn't get in the way of each other, and I could get the effect I wanted.

This really took only a few seconds. Long enough for me to think I wasn't feeling very coordinated, realize there was a solution that would make things easier, pull the appropriate knobs and play the piece. But like many persons who are or were pianists, I had something of an aversion to all of those knobs and it took me a while to get over that and start making them work for me.


Monday, May 19, 2014

You guys rock!

You really do! Over on Facebook, anyway.

Here's what I'm excited about. I've been checking my website statistics over on Pianonoise.com for the last week or so and have noticed something that hasn't happen in about nine years.

Since about 2004, when I recorded it with a single microphone hanging from a curtain in a piano student's living room before my class' spring recital at the school where I was teaching at the time, Erik Satie's little Gymnopedie has been consistently the number one most listened to piece of music on this website. For over nine years. It usually gets about 3000 hits a month, and for about six months in--I don't know, I think it was about three or four years ago now--it was getting around 8,000 hits a month. It didn't exactly go viral, but for a piece of classical piano music on the personal website of a guy who doesn't advertise and didn't put it on Youtube, that seemed pretty high. And it was nice to be getting listened to like that, particularly when at least half of those hits seemed to be coming from China, which makes it that much cooler, since you know that people clear on the other side of the globe are hearing you play the piano most times of the day and night. Even if most of them are going through those enormous mp3 searching sites and have never actually visited pianonoise, couldn't read anything I've written if they did, and even if some of them have no idea who is playing the music and don't care, and even if, occasionally, somebody makes a CD which they try to pass off as their own playing and which sounds suspiciously like that one's own recording (true story--also they didn't bother to change the file name so it was easy to track!)

Now I've got nothing against Mr. Satie's nice little Gymnopedie--it was even revolutionary for its time, and it is quite well known today. But one of the things I hope to do with Pianonoise is to introduce people to things they haven't heard before, to get them to go beyond liking what they already know and knowing only what they already like. I'm an explorer myself, often recording pieces of music I didn't know the week before, and I'd like to be able to take my audience with me. Besides, I get tired of the same old same old.

For the last five weeks now I've been using Twitter to post links to Facebook that play pieces of music from this site. I've been calling it "Mystery Music Monday" and not telling people what I'm playing. Since my site has a wide variety of styles of music played on both the piano and the organ you never quite know what you are getting into. Frankly, I'm a little puzzled why no one is asking what they are listening to! But what is gratifying is that people are listening. I've been getting about 50 to 60 hits a week to these files within the first 24 hours, which may not sound like a lot, but when you compare that number to the amount of memory the server is going through it shows that at least half of you are listening to the entire piece--in other words, it is a dedicated listenership. In an age when people are getting inundated with all kinds of entertainment options and information that they haven't asked for that's quite good. I only have about 150 Facebook friends, too, which means that about a third of them are taking a few minutes out of their Monday to listen to whatever I've decided to throw at them.

I haven't made it simple, either. While I usually toss in some ragtime or uptempo non-classical something or other in concert appearances with general audiences, the last two of four weeks have featured music from the Baroque period. And, as of this writing, that sonata by Scarlatti that I played a couple of weeks ago has the number one spot, finally dethroning Erik Satie after nine years. That's right--Domenico Scarlatti is in the number one spot! That's followed by pieces by Gottschalk, Telemann, and Joplin, all four of which were featured on Monday morning Mystery Music. While I haven't ventured into particularly heavy territory yet, I'm still pleased to see people taking a chance on piano and organ music that they've probably never heard. Most of my Facebook friends aren't professional musicians--in fact, a clear majority of them aren't musicians at all, so this means I really have a chance to share music with people who aren't out there specifically looking for this kind of music to listen to, nor are they part of the "inner circle" of persons who already know what they like and like what they know when it comes to how somebody interprets a sonata by Scarlatti because they've heard it a hundred times before.

People who write about classical music are constantly worried about the fate of this music, that it may be dying, that more people aren't listening to it. While this may not be a major news event, it is nevertheless nice to see music getting around to regular folks who seem to be enjoying it. I've stretched the definition of classical somewhat to include Scott Joplin (he would have too, I think) and Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and some early jazz, and a few other styles my cousin Marteau may have dabbled in which might be a desecration of the temple to purists. Well, too bad. We're having some fun and I don't want to press my luck with copious amounts of late Beethoven at the moment. But you'll be hearing from him, too.

Anyhow, that was what got me up this morning. Carry on, and enjoy listening! It's a pleasure playing for you.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Well, that title will certainly get a few people to read it...

Bless me, readers, for I keep sinning. In addition to being a church organist, caretaker of a tradition most people ignore, aficionado of music for which few people care, I compound my recklessness by being a scholar. Sort of.

Actually, I really just dabble in the stuff. When my advisor asked whether I might consider a PhD in musicology I was nearly finished with the DMA and wasn't particularly interested in starting another terminal degree, particularly when I was getting old enough that it might really be terminal. So I am still a rank amateur. But I have the effrontery to consider that knowing things about the notes on the page before you besides what the score by itself can tell you is not a bad thing. Horrors!

The other day I got around to a little piece by Buxtehude I had wanted to play 18 months ago when it didn't make it past the crush of other things I was doing at the time. I remembered it, dusted it off and made a little recording of it which I'll have to share with you next week when I get around to doing all the little things you have to do with a recording to be able to post it. As I played, a little question kept nagging at me. It's a question you have to know something about music history to ask, otherwise it might never bother you at all--bother, or fascinate.

The piece is a chorale prelude called "Auf meinen lieben Gott" and the reason it is odd is that it is written in the form of a dance suite. There are five parts, and the first is an allemande, the second a double, the third a sarabande, the fourth a courante, and the last a gigue. It is a clever way of writing five variations on a tune, but if you know something about attitudes in church music several centuries ago (and even today) there is one big disconnect here.

Dance....church.....church.....dance......    can't....be....happening......

Reams of paper, forests of trees, were spent in the effort to shun such an expression by clergy and church leaders in nearly every century between the first and the last. The consensus was that dancing was just something completely inappropriate for church--sinful, worldly, undignified, and so on (dancing's reputation hadn't really improved much since some rapscallion named David tried doing it in front of the altar of the Lord and got reproved for it by my namesake) and music for church should NEVER EVER EVER suggest such a low thing as a dance.

Which makes it look like Mr. Buxtehude is committing a musical sin of the first order.

So I went looking for a reason.

Oddly enough, the last time I wrote on this blog about a scholarly pursuit based on organ literature, a fellow named Sweelinck actually spent a few measures of one of his hymn settings imitating a dance, and the reason seems to have been (according to a video I saw) that the words at that point have to do with a plea to keep us from temptation, and Sweelinck's idea was that dancing represented worldly temptation.

Here, though, the entire hymn was a series of dances. So I went to the google with my grave question. It is no longer necessary to climb a tall mountain and wait for the master to appear before presenting your question to him. The Google has come to the lowlands as well. And what the gGoogle found for me was an article with this interesting title "Buxtehude and the Dance of Death." That was the part before the colon, which is required in all academic articles. The catchy part comes first, then after the colon you have to explain your little joke so that it will be clear exactly what you are writing about, something that only becomes clear once you have drained the humor out of it. After the colon what I found was "The Chorale Partita 'Auf meinen lieben Gott' (BUXWV 179) and the Ars Morendi in the 17th Century." by Dr. Markus Rathey from Yale. The line about death wasn't bad, though. If the author couldn't get the word sex in the title at least he managed a close second.

So I gave the article a quick read. There were a number of fascinating details in it; the author, like myself, wanted to know why Buxtehude would treat a hymn this way when the dance was clearly off limits for liturgical music, and, in particular, he wondered why the composer had done this with this particular hymn, unique in his entire known writings.

I can't say that, in the end, he answered the question entirely to my satisfaction. Like most historians (social historians in particular) he seemed more interested in trends than in individuals. When confronted by a particular issue, the first thing a historian does is to look for all the other examples which may have influenced or been influenced by that particular, and so dwarf the present example in an avalanche of similarities. This was both interesting and frustrating, because on the one hand it revealed a good number of examples of a kind of literature of which I knew next to nothing; namely, other hymn settings which were treated something like dance suites (though not the full way), and on the other hand it dodged the issue, which was why Buxtehude did what he did. Unless the answer was really that everyone else was doing it and it just seemed like a good idea. Which would really knock down Buxtehude a peg or two, in my opinion.

And it really doesn't account for the uniqueness of the treatment or say why he might have chosen it in this particular case. I am back to assuming that Buxtehude was a smart fellow and he thought about what he was doing and why, more than the average American teenager.

Of course, part of the reason for the author's approach was that he really couldn't with any certainty answer the particular question. Little enough is known about Buxtehude's life to start with, never mind about individual decisions he might have made about a single piece of music.

Nonetheless, there were some tantalizing possibilities, and this is where the death part comes in. The hymn tune "Auf meinen lieben Gott" (In my beloved God I trust in anxiety and trouble) was often played at funerals. It would therefore have been associated with death. Fine, you are thinking. What on earth does dancing have to do with that? well at least it makes a great title--the dance of death. It got me to read it, anyway.

In Buxtehude's church, where Buxtehude would have seen it often, because it was close to the organ, was a large painting of the figure of death, dancing with all castes of society. Thus the dance of death. The author considers, but ultimately dismisses the connection, however, because there is no evidence that Buxtehude tried to work in the number of dancers into the structural scheme of the work. What he did do, however, was to write one variation for each of the hymn's five stanzas. And he reordered the normal flow of dances so that the slow sarabande came during the third verse, which was the climax of the hymn (for to live is Christ and to die is gain), and could thus be highlighted.

Otherwise, the order is intact, and the character of the hymn allows for this ingenious transformation rather easily. For instance, a repeated note at the beginning which is a perfect pickup to begin each section of a typical dance suite. My cousin Marteau, who enjoys hymn tune transformations of this sort, was intrigued by this thought.

This was, as Mr. Rathey pointed out, the tip of a large iceberg. The tradition of hymn tunes as dances was a bit larger than many of us knew, but more importantly, the tradition of playing hymns at home was enormous. And that, he suggests, is really the occasion for which this piece was made. Not for the organ but the harpsichord, and not for the church but the home. Thus preserving the separation of church and dance.

Which means I would commit a sin against Buxtehude and his century's sense of order if I play it in church in a week or two. I still plan to. And I've added a third layer to the death and dance conundrum by making this a tour of interesting organ registrations. We're having ours refurbished this summer and it would be a good time to education the congregation about the instrument and stimulate appreciation for this amazing instrument. Even if it means the organ has to dance a bit.

It may cause Buxtehude to spin in his grave. But by now he probably needs the exercise.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Birds

They're coming.

Actually, they're already here.

The little devils.

If I was a little winged creature, I would probably want to settle under the eaves too. The north end of our sanctuary is practically built like a bird high-rise. All those lovely apartments just waiting for the enterprising sparrow to make a nest. I wouldn't be surprised if some bird already owned the place and was charging tenants to live there. One bedroom apartments with lovely view. Close to everything. Lots of cars in easy pooping distance every Sunday, Unfurnished--you have to build your own nest.

The problem with all this is they can be loud neighbors. Every year from the start of June to the middle of July I can't record the organ until after dark or suffer the consequences of loud bird noises throughout the music. I found this out the hard way after several recordings were ruined. Some have been assiduously edited to leave out the bird singalong. One that I left in the pianonoise catalog will illustrate the problem. It sounds a bird like birdsong anyhow, so I thought it might be amusing to let the birds sing and not re-record--yet.

[Pinkevicius: communion from Mass for the 4th Sunday of Lent]

All the same, I really ought to be smart about this and save my recording for the piano, where the microphones go to the other end of the sanctuary and close enough to the instrument that you generally can't hear birds--except for two years ago when a rival gang of birds set up shop near the pipe room. Some times it sounded like West Side Story in our sanctuary. Piano recording is tough during the winter because the heat makes too much background hum but it is ideal during the summer months. However, as I mentioned on Friday, our organ is leaving us for two months to be refurbished this summer and it seems prudent to concentrate on it for the present, while it's available.

When I'm not recording I don't mind if the birds chirp along. It can be pleasant. And there's always been a niche market for that sort of thing.

I thought, as a tribute to my feathered neighbors, to encore a piece by our friend Dietrich Buxtehude. It's a little prelude and fugue I played last spring. The second part, the fugue, sounds like birds--mechanical birds, perhaps, but they do chatter along nicely.

Enjoy!

[Buxtehude: Praeludium in F]

Monday, May 12, 2014

Depends on who's telling the story

If you've ever been to a piano competition you might have noticed that if thirty pianists are required to play the same piece of music, they will often play that piece very differently. How does that happen? In this article I'm going to talk a bit about interpretation.

A couple of weeks ago I made a recording of a Scarlatti sonata--hurriedly, as usual, but except for the distractingly out of tune octave Gs in the treble of the piano, the result wasn't too bad, and I posted it last week on this blog. As I was preparing to post the recording I wanted to check to make sure I got the catalog number right so I checked with The Google and stumbled across a Youtube recording of a pianist named Nikolai Demidenko.

Mr. Demidenko apparently knows how to play the piano, having won some major competitions and toured the world, etc. although to be honest I hadn't heard of him. But it's a big world and I don't pay as much attention to the world of piano superstars as you might think.

What was interesting about listening to his interpretation is that it was quite a bit different than mine. I had made the recording before I listened to anybody else play the piece, so it was enlightening. Mr. Demidenko's approach was largely more graceful and smoother than mine. I remember thinking that I might have captured some Spanish passion with the rendition, although Scarlatti was actually Italian. John Kirkpatrick, whose book on Scarlatti I read years ago, thought that Scarlatti may have been somewhat bold and reckless; there were rumors that he had a gambling problem, that he was a risk taker, and adventurer--all these things might have contributed to the music as I played it. Except for one problem: I'm not so sure that we are so sure that we really know that much about Scarlatti's personality. And although Kirkpatrick believes that Scarlatti's music is somewhat biographical, which is a nice thought, it's hard to know just how far one can safely take something like that. And anyhow, when it comes to storytelling, what you hear, and how you hear it, depends greatly on who is doing the storytelling.

For example, there is a place about 32 seconds into my rendition (or :26 into Demidenko's) where, after a short pause, the second portion of the piece begins. For me, it is loud and boisterous. For Demidenko, it is soft and elegant. Who's right?

If you happen to follow along with the musical score which accompanies the Youtube video it appears that he is. That score is full of dynamics and articulation marks that largely agree with the pianist of the video. The trouble there is that Scarlatti didn't actually write those marks; this score has been heavily edited by someone who is giving us one way to interpret the music based, as far as I can tell, on nothing more than his or her own imagination. Which means that there are really three persons in this drama--myself, Mr. Demidenko, and whoever edited the music that appears with the video (by the way, my edition, edited by Kirkpatrick, has none of those marks in it).

There are times, however, when what Mr. Demidenko is playing is the opposite of what the music on the video shows, which either means that he wasn't using that edition (a third party, I presume, put the video together) or he didn't always agree with it.

At the end of the first section, for instance, both of us--Demidenko and myself--get gradually softer and end piano. The accompanying musical score prescribes a loud ending.

Perhaps the most interesting think about the Russian pianist's rendering is the pacing. In the second section of the piece (by the way, he doesn't take the repeats so he plays both halves of the piece only once) he slows down greatly (1:29-1:56), making the unusual harmonies introspective and brooding. For me, those crunches were exciting, and a chance to build the momentum until the final outburst of joy in F major. Now the score itself says nothing whatsoever about slowing down there. It isn't impossible that Scarlatti himself might have done something like that; partly because composers didn't write in tempo changes very often in the middle of pieces in those days, and partly because, given Scarlatti's mercurial personality (if that is true) he may have relished such a sudden shock to the system. Or not. There is no way to know.

At any rate, Mr. Demedenko does it well. And his storytelling is sure. I went on his website, and of course it is full of publicity blurbs from critics about how well he plays. There was one that said that he had "revealed the astonishing fecundity of Beethoven's imagination." Of course, it is possible that Beethoven (or Scarlatti) might never have imagined some of the things he says they did in his playing--that his interpretive imagination is making things up, in other words. But at least it is convincing. Would the composers appreciate that? Who knows? I'll err on the side of imagining that they would. Perhaps Scarlatti would not be displeased with my version either. Maybe on different days and in different moods he would have inclined to one or the other. I recently explained to a student how composers who lived recently enough to have made recordings of their own works sometimes confound our attempts to be true to their own written instructions by ignoring them themselves! Then there are others who insist on consistent fidelity to the marks on the score. What was Scarlatti like? He only wrote down the notes, and he had one catch-all sign for every ornament. Was he free in his performances?


There is, finally, an element of interpretation owed to the sonata being played on a modern piano. Mr. Demidenko's rendering tends toward beauty of sound and a very legato touch--something that would have been unacheivable on a harpsichord, at least to the extent that the notes melt together. My version, particularly in the second section, is more rustic and vivacious, and louder. However, if you attacked the opening chords of this section on a harpsichord the way I did on a piano, you would break strings. Perhaps Mr. Demidenko's way is better historically? On the other hand, the sound of the harpsichord is hardly smooth and beautiful like that of a modern Steinway. Lovely in its own way, or course, but not so that the tones blend together.

There is room in this world for more than one interpretation. Arthur Schnabel said that great music is music that is better than it can ever possibly be played; one cannot exhaust its possibilities in any single playing. Some years ago I started to catalog the pieces I recorded for pianonoise--hence the number that comes at the end of the file name. I did this so that I could record the same piece again and be able to tell them apart (the higher the number, the more recent is the recording). I haven't gotten around to that much yet, but the internet has evolved to the point that you can hear the various approaches from different personalities with the click of a few buttons. People fight over these details, and it isn't that those things aren't worth fighting over (politely). But it is the differences that teach us something, that make us think, that remove us from our own little philosophical spot on the planet. So here are both of our (or rather, all three of our) efforts. Enjoy!

Scarlatti: Sonata in F, k. 518    as played by Michael Hammer

Scarlatti: Sonata in F, k, 518   link to Youtube video as played by Nikolai Demidenko

Friday, May 9, 2014

Window Shopping

After our staff meeting this week I said to our business director, "I know we already signed a contract with the organ company, but I was thinking about some things we could add to the organ." Then I showed him this video demonstration of the organ at St. Paul's Cathedral in London. "See, they've got an extra room there just for their 32 foot pipes, which they've got on their sides. We could build an extra loft space just above the roof of our sanctuary by raising it a few feet and building a kind of large attic. And the thing I really like is how they have two identical consoles which electronically communicate with one another so that a stop setting on one console is immediately transferred to the other. We could put the other console in our South Sanctuary.If we expanded the pipe room to twice its present size by knocking out the prayer garden in between the organ could be heard equally well in both sanctuaries." We might have to pass out ear plugs to the congregants of the chapel-sized older worship facility, I thought, but the sonic results would be worth it. Hardly anybody would complain.

I was kidding about all this, of course, though I said it with a straight face and waited for our fiscally frugal (though not stingy, as you'll see) budget manager to catch on. The total cost of the organ console alone at St. Paul's has got to run into the several million dollars, to say nothing of the pipes, pipe room, and electronic conduits, and so on. We aren't quite that financially endowed. But one can dream, can't one? And in the world of pipe organs there is always something of which to be jealous.

As it happens, though, I've got a lot to be grateful for--enough to, perhaps, make you jealous. This summer we are having some major work done on the organ. It won't expand the organ, but it will take care of some problems we've been having with the connections between the pipes and the console. Back in the 80's our organ builder did some experimenting with some new technology and it turned out not to be such a great experiment. It's been causing us problems since well before I became the organist.

Into the bargain we are going to get a new console, digitized, and with a few more bells and whistles than the old one had. For one thing, while the current one has 24 general piston (memory) settings, the new one will have 100. That is still 700 short of the one at St. Paul's, but since I am the only organist who regularly uses the organ I think I can make do. I usually change the stops manually for the Sunday morning hymns and whatnot anyway, saving the piston changes for the more challenging organ literature. The organ isn't so large that I can't make most of those changes without help.

There will apparently also be transposition knobs, which I am not likely to use (though my successors might) and even a record and playback option that I'm hoping to show off at the re-dedication concert (but don't tell anybody--it'll be a surprise).

Better still, the whole thing will be attached to the pipe room by a single Cat-5 cable instead of the morass of cables that are now in place. That means that, if we can get someone to donate a few grand for a dolly, we can move the organ console, which means for recitals it can be out front rather than back in the corner where it lives now. We might even be able to get the piano to fit snugly beside it again, like it did a few years ago before we got the new carpet and the organ builders decided to put the console back a little to the left of where they found it!

It's not really a bad little instrument. And it isn't really all that little. It has a bit of everything--a couple of reeds, mutations, a few foundations, pairs of flute stops, string, mixtures in each division--and they blend well. And some of the folks who attend the early service think it is already plenty of organ for the size of the sanctuary, and like to keep their hearing aids turned up to hear the sermon, thank you very much.

But you know, organists can't help themselves sometimes. I mean, imagine a nice rumbly 32 foot contra bombard or some horizontal trumpets in the back. Then you would really feel the sound waves ripple right through you!

Not that I'll mind still being able to hear when I'm 80. And I often practice with reduced stops to make that dream a reality. I also enjoy the sound of a single 4 foot flute stop. Bigger may not always be better, but it isn't nothing. Still, I can deal.

In the meantime, I'll guess you'll just have to listen to my playing by way of the internet, instead of just opening your windows. But hey, that way works, too, I guess.


Wednesday, May 7, 2014

I think I forgot what I was going to say...

I got asked a question the other day, in a rather anonymous way. Somebody Googled something and that brought them to my site, and I suspect they didn't find entirely what they were looking for so I'd like to elaborate on what they did find.

The question was about memory. "how come my six year old can memorize her recital pieces and then forgets them later?" is a pretty good paraphrase of the question.

I'm a little worried about writing about memorization right now because I know lots of people are panicking about that very thing right now. This will probably make this a popular blog post for the next week or two, but I hate scolding people who are desperate and that is really about the only thing I can do. Trying to memorize something at the last minute doesn't work particularly well, as many of my colleagues at the conservatory found out. Not to mention spending the week of your recital in sheer panic all the time. This being the season for recitals it is also the season for trying to memorize music.

All I can really say to those of you trying to cram is that I hope you still have a few more days left and that you spend as much time as possible as far ahead of time as possible with the music, and then give your head as much time as possible to rest and get plenty of sleep closer to the concert. Sheer panic is not productive.

The most important ingredient in being able to memorize is time. Even time spent away from the piano, and not thinking at all about it counts if you start well in advance of the date on which the piece needs to be memorized. It is a long process.

Now, for that six year old it probably only took a day to memorize the piece. And then, after the recital, she probably didn't even think about the music again for a couple of weeks and now grandma wants to hear it and she can't remember it anymore.

Here's my thought on that: the time you spend during the memorization process is the same length as the time you will be able to keep it in memory. So if you spend one day memorizing something, one day is about as long as that piece will remain in your mind, unless you continue to try to play the piece from memory every day. If you continue playing the piece from memory for several days, weeks, even months, then your memory will be stronger and you will be able to go several days without thinking about the music and still be able to reproduce it when the time comes. It's just like learning something for the upcoming quiz and then forgetting it as soon as the test is over. You crammed, you got the job done, and now it is gone out of your mind.

If you really want to keep something in your head for a longer period of time you need to move that memory from short term to long term memory. That is what takes time, and results in a more permanent storage. If you are playing a long recital you will need to rely on this. Start memorizing parts of your piece as soon as you can play them, months in advance. Don't consider memorization something you do after you do everything else.

The mind is really an amazing thing, and can store lots and lots of information for later recall. Think of it in terms of compound interest. The more you try to make it memorize, the better able it will be to do this. The more information you feed it, and the more often your reinforce that information--in other words, the more you use this ability, the more it will grow. The more you put it off, loathe it, think you are bad at it and therefore don't make the effort to be otherwise, the less it will grow.

Now all of that is a bit much for a six year old. But the brain still operates pretty much the same way. Play your pieces from memory every day for a while and see if they don't stay there. And if you are in an awful pickle right now and wish you had your pieces memorized for today's recital, resolve to do better next time. I'll talk more about this in the coming weeks.




Monday, May 5, 2014

Getting the feel of it

How are you this fine Monday morning?

Me, I'm exhausted. I'm probably lying in bed right now aching, and in no hurry to get up. I'll catch up with you around noon, maybe.

The reason for that might have something to do with my weekend. Saturday night I had a concert with one organization. Sunday afternoon was a concert with another group. In between I had the usual four weekend church services, also a dress rehearsal on Friday night for group one, and then on Sunday, after three services and a concert, another (three hour) rehearsal for another thing group one is doing. Group two had their dress Thursday and is now finished for the season.

So I'm probably a little less chipper than my usual Monday morning self. I say probably because I wrote this entry on Thursday night and I'm having it posted automatically at 8 a.m. Monday while I'm likely still in bed, dead to the world, because I'm a musician and I work weekends, but not necessarily Monday mornings.

Now one of the terrific things about recordings is they can capture a moment and play it back for us much later. The recording I'm going to play for you, of a sonata by Domenico Scarlatti, was made about a week ago, and I gave it a very vigorous, energetic playing, which is likely the very opposite of what I am feeling right now.

Scarlatti: Sonata in F, k.518

John Kirkpatrick, a pianist and person who studied Scarlatti's music quite a bit, wrote a book about it (at least one), and is the reason for that "k" up there (he cataloged all 555 of Scarlatti's sonatas so we could all tell them apart)--John Kirkpatrick once wrote that he thought of Scarlatti's sonatas as "leaves in a diary;" as if the man was capturing impressions, moods, occasions at the court of the king and queen he served, recording the life all around him, and making music of it instead of words.

Perhaps. I say perhaps because there have always been musicians who get uncomfortable around these ideas, particularly because musical story telling and the sharing of feelings can only get a composer part of the way there. If you can't articulate and structure what you want to say, if you can't formulate it using musical formulas and rules and customs, combined with your own idiosyncrasies, if you can't use your intellect to tame and discipline your music, you won't get very far. A feeling, by itself, can't speak for itself. Articulation is the resonator.

Still, it's amazing to what degree human beings can apparently share feelings with one another, impressions, ideas. These are all apparently invisible, inarticulate, difficult to pin down, and yet to some extent we manage to convey these things, through force of will and intellect, even over great distances in time and space. The internet has me amazed at how I can communicate with people from the other side of the globe. Mr. Scarlatti's sonata was written by a man living in Spain, 300 years ago, in a castle I've never seen, in a world I'll never experience. And yet, here it is. You can experience it, too.

Of course, some of what your are hearing might be more me than Scarlatti. It's hard to know. We do know that Scarlatti would have played it on a harpsichord rather than a Steinway. And we know that when the king acquired a piano it was later converted to a harpsichord. I'll try not to take that personally. The harpsichord is a great instrument. And I flatter myself that if Scarlatti heard me play his sonata in this bold manner on this bold instrument, he might even warm to the piano a bit. The pianos of his time were timid customers.

So on this probably cold, dreary morning, when I'm sleeping in, here's some exciting, festival music from a time long ago and far away. What occasioned it we don't know. And if we did know we might be disappointed. The reality of the specific experience probably didn't really live up to the musical memory. But he sure makes it sound like someplace you'd want to be, doesn't he?

Friday, May 2, 2014

Wait for it...

This week the lectionary scripture reading concerns two travelers on the road to Emmaus running across a stranger who travels with them, explains the scriptures to them for a while, and finally, when it is time to eat a meal, breaks bread with them, and suddenly in that moment they realize...

It's Jesus!

Of course, it's been Jesus all along and they didn't recognize him. This is often considered the important point of this story, and it is the focus of our pastor's sermon this week at Faith church as well. Casting about for musical corollaries I came up with this Bach Chorale Prelude, which I've decided not to play after all because I only found out about the sermon topic on Wednesday, and didn't think I could get what is probably the trickiest of the "Great 18" Chorales back under my fingers in time. Besides, it will be a rough weekend, schedule-wise, so I decided not to push it. But the next time we travel down the road to Emmaus, I've got an idea. Here's why....

Bach's prelude on the hymn tune "Lord Jesus Christ, Turn Toward Us" is unusual. In fact, it's the only setting of a hymn that I know of in which the hymn itself doesn't actually show up until two thirds of the way through the piece. That's kind of odd for a hymn setting, don't you think?

And yet, as much as it might seem to just show up out of the blue, there are some hints as to the hymn itself before it officially "shows up." Let me show you the transformation.

Here's the tune.

Now, the opening notes of it go like this.

Suppose you sped those notes up.

Then suppose you added notes in between each of those notes to make what is basically an arpeggiated chord sound like a little scale.

That just happens to be the opening of the piece. And it is imitated by a second voice just a second later. And you hear it again, and again, in various keys, major and minor, while we wait for the glorious moment, two minutes later, when the slowed down and louder version of it suddenly shows up in the pedals. But it was there all along.

There are other hints; harmonic patterns that fit in with the notes of the hymn, places where Bach could have stuck in the hymn itself but left it absent. No other setting that I know makes us wait so long for the official entrance of the hymn.

But it is a glorious moment when we recognize it at last. And, if you ask me, it's worth the wait.

Bach: Lord Jesus Christ, Turn Toward Us