Friday, August 16, 2019

Playing with fire

It's the eerie music that runs through the subconscious of every conservatory musician.The fear of injury.

Fingers are muscles. Muscles can be pulled. Strained. Stressed. And if not attended to, bad things can happen. Career ending things.

The problem being that the "attending to" part usually involves not using said muscles. Not practicing. This is a no-go for a lot of young folks trying to cram for an important performance. And when you are young they are all important performances. So they just go for it.

One very talented individual went for it. He was scheduled to play Bach's Goldberg Variations at a Conservatory Convocation. It was his last performance. For several years, anyway. Possibly for good. (don't know for sure)

I've seen the t-word happen to a few musicians who were my colleagues at the conservatory. It was usually very talented, very industrious ones. It didn't necessarily end their careers, but it may have sidelined them for a while.

See, the t-word is cumulative. Once you've got a full-blown case of it, even taking a break for months, or years, doesn't really work very well. Only an hour of practice can bring it roaring back. This is what makes it so frightening. So much that I call it the t-word.

If you're curious, it ends in -itis, and beings with "tendon." Shh! Don't say it out loud!

It usually announces its presence less than subtly. You can tell when your wrists are on fire, or your fingers feel stiff. That usually freaks me out, and I stop practicing right away. Once, in college, I was playing a Brahms concerto in which the cadenza involved a lot of accented notes with the pinkie finger of the left hand. I overdid the accents. I could feel it afterward. And I dialed it back for a few days.

Efficient practice, the kind where your fingers release into the keyboard exactly the way they are supposed to, tends to keep this sort of thing from happening. But practice a difficult passage with even a little bit of unnecessary tension in the hands, or try to stretch or pull the hand over a jump instead of rotating the wrist to get there, or fail to relocate the rest of your fingers to support the little fingers on the ends of your hands so that the pinkie just sticks out there like it is hailing a cab one too many times, and you'll be sorry. Not right away. You can usually get away with it for a day or to, but not for very long.

I was working on all four of the Chopin Ballades this week for a program in Pittsburgh next week. On short notice I was trying to cram 50 pages of music I haven't played in a quarter century. That is a good way to get hurt. I was aware of this. I was also aware that we have a vacation coming up and some enforced time away from the piano which would give time for the fingers to heal if I strained anything just a bit. But also fewer days to get the music ready.

Chopin can be really unforgiving on the fingers. Especially if your technical approach isn't spot on. And when you are just learning the notes, or trying to achieve speed perhaps a little too early, that can be dangerous.

It's good to know this, recognize the symptoms, and know when to back off. Being able to learn quickly also helps, and having the maturity not to panic at the thought of another recital without enough preparation time.

It's been a while since I felt any fire in my wrists, but one day last week it happened. The ending of that first ballade is a real challenge at performance speed! I threw a little too much caution to a little too much wind before I really understood how to move quickly among the forest of notes. The will is a wonderful thing, but it can also be a bit like a bull in a china shop. It was probably only a span of about 10 minutes that did the real damage--fortunately, it wasn't anything irreversible. For all its horrors, the t-word does give you time to decided whether to forge ahead and risk real injury, or to get out while all you've got is a minor strain. One day is not going to completely wreck your fingers in perpetuity.

My fingers could be feeling better, but they are doing fine--a little tired from their ordeal, but recovering. There is a time to cram and a time to be careful, and always a time to balance those two ends. I hope the cadre of students entering music schools all over the world this week are able to do that.

There is, of course, also mental practicing, slow practice, listening to recordings, and knowing when staying glued to the piano is getting you diminishing returns and a nice walk would be a good idea.

We live, we learn, and we achieve.  And we try to be able to live another day, with fingers and bodies and minds whole so we can experience the hearts and minds of all of those wonderful composers.

Careful out there, my friends.

Happy practicing.

The St. Paul Cathedral Pittsburgh concert is up at pianonoise radio this week. And of course, the homepage is new like it is every week. Enjoy!

Friday, August 9, 2019

Great Uncle Fred

Any relatives reading this might be surprised to learn that I have a great uncle Fred.

Actually, his full name is Fred Chopin.

He's not a blood relative, but in matters musical he's probably been more of an influence on me than many of them.

I didn't realize to what extent this was true until I started playing his music again recently. You dedicated readers know that for much of the life of this blog and its accompanying website, the piano has had to vie with, or even take a back seat to, the organ. That's also been true for my activities as a composer, though there is less evidence online for that. And there have been various jobs, gigs, detours, hats--I've basically taken the long way around. While starting off as a classical pianist, the trail has gotten much more complicated than that. But once again, I seem poised to make my way back to the classical piano literature. Fred is there to help me recover that strand of my DNA. He is also there to remind me just how much of it has gotten absorbed into my own music--technique, compositions, improvisations, all of it. Who knew?

When I was at the conservatory the halls were filled with people playing Chopin. A little too often, I though. Not because I didn't like Chopin, but because I believe you can overdo anything. I once wrote that Chopin had died of consumption in 1849 and "is still dying of it." This was my brilliant observation in the margins of a piano literature exam. My just out of school instructor didn't appreciate comments like it. He wrote "STOP IT!!!!!!" I think he may have also been a bit high strung.

It was difficult to want to play Chopin with the place always ringing with the sounds of a few over-popular measures on endless loop from all the practicing, but I managed to eak out a little. I was more interested in Mozart and Brahms in those days. But I did, at some point, look at the four Ballades. I don't remember playing them for very long, and I'm sure I never played one on a recital. But perhaps I gave them more of a run than I thought. At least I am suspicious of just how quickly I (re)learned them these last two weeks. That's usually because somewhere in the back of the brain, some relevant material still lingers in storage from long ago, which in this case is a quarter of a century. Of course I was also young and my brain was a sponge. So who knows? Who remembers?

Anyhow, I'm enjoying my time with Fred this month. I've decided to play some at Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh in two weeks. It's a bit daunting to take on 50 pages of Chopin in just a few weeks, but I try not to worry about that and just focus on how nice it is just to get back to the piano, slow practicing and reinforcing music from long ago.

Meanwhile, it is like visiting an old friend. A student recently recalled when I had observed in class that each composer had their own signature, their own musical traits, or obsessions, or methods, or sometimes a favorite constellation of notes. It's an observation that might strike some people as a surprise, but only if you don't have a favorite author or composer or painter or some kind of artist. Then you start to recognize stylistic habits. Something that begins to sound like Chopin, or the 19th century, or Eastern Europe. That recognition also helps you learn faster, and to interpret with some understanding. And sometimes it is just nice to hold on to in a crazy ever-changing world.

My uncle Fred stopped writing us musical letters a long time ago. But the ones he left behind are still fascinating so many years hence. I'll share them with you in the months to come. You'll like them. They make the piano sound like it is fulfilling its destiny. They've even helped me to understand myself a little better. Here's to Great Uncle Fred!

Friday, August 2, 2019


Henry David Thoreau said that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds." Whether he meant foolish to particularly modify the noun (#not-all-consistency) or whether he was being redundant for emphasis, people often incline to the latter interpretation. The same sorts of people who tend to like Thoreau, for example.

It's Friday, which is when I post blogs, which I've done uninterruptedly for nearly two years, and most of three before that, so here I am again, even though I'm not sure I've got anything to say worth saying. But there seems to be value in being consistent nonetheless.

When I go for runs I always sprint at the end no matter how tired I feel. Training myself to do that in all circumstances is probably why, when I ran my first half-marathon some years ago, despite feeling completely out of gas and having no energy whatever as I rounded the last turn, I began to sprint anyhow. I couldn't help myself. Even when I saw the clock over the finish line and realized I was going to make my goal time by enough seconds that I could probably slow to a walk and still make it in time, I sprinted on, wondering how in the heck I was managing to do this in the condition I was in. It's about consistency. A baked-in response.

You can say the same for character. If you tell the truth all of the time when it doesn't matter that much you just might still do it when it does. Manners are the same way. Sometimes please and thank you comes out of me before I've even thought about what the situation calls for and before I get distracted or forget. It's on automatic. Some things need to be.

You could also argue that great things are often built out of continued showing up and doing what you can no matter what. Mozart wrote some compositions that are frankly not all that terrific. But it is entirely likely that he gained something from each and every one of them no matter how mediocre. I mean, it seems hardly coincidental that most great composer's best works fall near the end of their lives, and then they come more often. There must have been learning going on in all of those earlier works. How? By constantly doing it. Even when the immediate yield was no masterpiece. Maybe they were sick or tired or just not feeling inspired.

It's possible that some of these masterpieces wouldn't exist without a conscious decision to write something that wasn't so terrific but ended up teaching a vital lesson for later. I can't absolutely prove that. But I choose to believe it.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Tumbleweed Season

When I lived in Illinois, several years ago, I thought of July as Tumbleweed Season. Meaning it was so quiet the calm was interrupted only by the occasional tumbleweed blowing through.

July was the time when everybody who could get out of town left for vacation, and activities mostly ceased in anticipation of the Great Fall Start-up. The Busy Time (that is, the Academic Year) had of course crept in both directions, running later in the year and swallowing June, and with the university students arriving in August it was no longer safe to take vacation so late in the summer because things were starting again earlier than they used to. That left July. Hot, placid, featureless, lonely July.

This year my July was crowned with a concert at St. Paul's Cathedral in Pittsburgh, the last of a series of five performances in a month, consisting of four different programs, on two distinctly different instruments (piano and organ). That hardly made it a month for lounging around.

And when I awoke from my temporary stupor there was a moment of reckoning. Because I like to panic early I realized I had better get started full speed on the programs for the fall. After the organ concert in September there is a series of five lecture recitals within the span of a month and another program on its heels. I have a couple of things in August, too, but they don't really count in the
category "additional preparation needed."

I am not a person who likes to brag-complain about how busy I am in order to sound like I have significance in the universe, however. Instead, I have been focusing on the importance of the quiet spaces in between the fevered activity. They are important, particularly when they are short-lived. A person who is full of tension all of the time is in trouble. And it is not a very useful strategy. Even playing the piano requires an awful lot of relaxation, balance, and poise. Amateurs who don't know how and where to relax remain amateurs. Complicated passages with gallons of notes will forever remain out of the reach of the tense. At every level, micro and macro, rest is important.

I was noticing this yesterday while practicing the piano. It surprised me how easy it felt. This may have been because, although I feel perfectly comfortable at the organ, only having one keyboard and much less for the feet to do suddenly seems really simple, now matter how many notes I shoot out of my fingers. There is also something about the touch of an instrument that lets you feel completely relaxed the moment you have discharged that light pinprick from your finger tips that sends the hammer bouncing up to meet the string. While it is in the air, like a cake in the oven, you don't need to do anything but let that process you've set in motion do its thing. Relaxation in the tiniest of spots, a fraction of a second here, and a fraction of a second there. It adds up.

It's a curious phenomenon. One can be responsible for a great deal of activity and yet feel very calm about it. It's a good way to play the piano, and to live life. Besides, I think stress is over-rated, don't you?

don't forget to check out when you have a chance. This month the radio program is music for the organ concert I gave in Upper St. Clair last month. The St. Paul concert will be available in a couple of weeks.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Cathedral Week Dairy

I had quite the week, preparing for my organ concert at St. Paul Cathedral, Pittsburgh, on Sunday, July 14th at 3:30 pm. (Bring everybody you've ever met. They've got the seating for sure.) This is my diary:

Sunday afternoon I headed to St. Paul for the first concert of the summer series. I've been attending concerts pretty frequently since moving to Pittsburgh three years ago. This one is different, however. Don Fellows, the cathedral organist, comes over and presents me with a set of keys. One of them unlocks the iron gate at the bottom of the steps, the other the door at the top. I am now able to come practice the organ on the four days which have been provided on the cathedral calendar. I am pretty excited. I am also pretty nervous. I've never played this organ before. I know that it was made by a German builder, that it has many characteristics of an 18th century instrument (including a shorter compass; that is, there aren't quite as many keys near the top of each manual, and 'reversed' black and white keys: the keys on the bottom used to be black, unlike on modern instruments). Tomorrow I'll find out if the French Romantic and 20th century pieces I decided to put on the program will work out, and how well I'm getting along with the instrument generally. For any given organ concert you might have to change the way you play a piece, changing which hand goes where, or which buttons you end up pushing to change stops when. The angles can also be very different. There are hundreds of little things to consider, but for now the best thing I can do is just to know the music really well and be as prepared as possible. This week will mostly be about transferring the program to a specific organ. Some people (and not just the cathedral staff!) have called this organ the "finest instrument in North America" so I'm about to have a major privilege, getting to play it all week. But at the moment I'm pretty anxious. In less than a week I'm playing a concert on an instrument I don't know at all. It's too late even to change much of the program, I'd just better make things work. Tomorrow we find out.

Monday: A huge day. I spent the morning practicing at my own church, then I went over to the radio station, WQED, to plug my concert on the air. I recorded a podcast with Jim Cunningham, the morning host. While I was there he took some pictures of me at the "Mr. Rogers" piano, and I got to play it. I thought I would try a little Mozart, but when I sat down all the stuff from Mr. Roger's neighborhood came gushing forth. It was eerie. Every good piano has its own personality. This one sounded exactly like what I remembered as a kid. Wow. There was a moment I wasn't expecting. When I told my wife's colleague at dinner about it, she was much more excited about the Mr. Roger's piano than about the cathedral organ! It turns out she's a native Pittsburgher.

So what happened at the organ? Several things. At first I couldn't find the light switch, so I spent the first 20 minutes playing in the dark. Eventually I figured out where it was (later, I dimly remembered the associate organist telling me where to find it about six months ago during a conversation. Oh well). Now that I am playing at such a monster console at my church every other one seems small. Technically this is a smaller organ than I play at Third (which is one of many organs here that are larger than some cathedral organs), but it has a huge sound in the great space (it isn't small, either. more than 4000 pipes). But like most cathedrals, the worship space may be enormous, but the organ is hidden in the back balcony. The bench faces the organ, and with the cabinet covering and sides you feel a little like being in a cave. The biggest physical issue is that the bench is not adjustable, so I have just a little over an inch between the tops of my legs and the bottom of the key-bed. No extravagant gestures, please! I'll hurt myself.

I have two hours in a quiet cathedral. Every minute has to count. I manage to register everything--except one piece which I realize I've skipped. Oh well, that's not bad for one day: nine pieces sonically mapped out. I don't like all the registrations, but I can fine tune things over the next three days. The best part is that I can play everything decently. Things are going to work, even the French ones. My heart has been pounding all afternoon; now I can relax, and try to get some food and some rest and come back tomorrow. At dinner I can't stop thinking about all of the things I want to fix or fine tune tomorrow, and what the best strategy is for the next two hour frame.

Tuesday: Inevitably, the next day I'm a little tired after the stress and the excitement. But I get to the cathedral in the afternoon to do my thing. I've already thought and rethought what needs to be done and in which order. I decide to concentrate mainly on the second half of the program which has all of the modern and French music. This is where the most challenge lies. There are a few people in the cathedral this time, praying. Loudly. I hate to interrupt, but lately I've had to become inured to the idea that I am making an enormous, very noticeable racket in a space where people regularly come to pray and that is just going to be how it is.

One of the amazing things about the organ is how you can make a huge sound with a tiny movement. I concentrate on using very little energy, physical or emotional, in playing this day.  And I fix a few registrations, as well as the passages and pieces that didn't feel comfortable yesterday. Like Monday, there is a time when I feel worried that time is going by too fast, and then I realize I'll get it all in and am even unsure if I should use all the time. And then it all works out just right at the end. I snap some more pictures and exit the cathedral.

Wednesday: This has been an amazing week. I've even thought of it like one of those week long summer camps one attends as a child, you know, "Organ Concert giving in a Cathedral" summer camp. It's a privilege I don't get every week, particularly on that instrument in that space. Maybe if I had been an organ major instead of a piano major in school that wouldn't be the case. But as anyone who has been to camp knows, you stay up late with your friends, you are very excited, you don't get enough sleep; a few days into the week you are exhausted. I am starting to feel that weight on me. Every time I practice at St. Paul I feel nervous, as if it is the concert itself and I don't want to make any mistakes. That's probably good, I tell myself. How can Sunday feel any different than it feels now, on Wednesday? If there is any change, it will be because somehow I've lost my anxiety and am feeling totally comfortable, even if for only a little while. I continue to adjust to the tracker organ, trying to figure out where to put my feet when I'm not using them, since there is only one expression pedal (and a fairly useless one at that; very little of the organ seems to be behind slats, and therefore capable of being made louder or softer by use of the expression pedal: at my home console we have four of them! Oh well, not having to worry about them makes some things easier. But the balance has to be achieved by using louder and softer stops since there is no way to massage their volume). I being by playing the entire concert straight down. I'm planning to do that tomorrow also. Today it's fairly quiet. Sometimes I look out and see people lighting candles in the front.

Thursday: My last day at the cathedral before Sunday since there are too many events (mainly weddings) happening the next two days so I wasn't given time to practice. When I enter the loft this time I feel different: the place feels familiar, and I have somehow grown comfortable with the organ. That only took four days! I play the entire program, then figure out what needs to be gone over. I'm almost too relaxed and tired to feel anxious about my time slipping away. But I feel confident that things will--or at least, can--go well on Sunday, which was the point. Everything is ready. Before the practice several extra pages to facilitate my own page turns at appropriate spots had disappeared, but they all fall out of one of the books I've brought to the cathedral. Whew! It's hard to leave at the end, but I think the transition has been accomplished. Here we go!

Friday: It's my day to go distance running so I get up early and go 18 miles from my home to the place where the rivers come together. I visit the Mr. Rogers statue and tell him I got to play his piano. It would be a nice run but the weather is awful. Also I'm still tired from the week, but I think once I've recovered from this run in another day I'll be energized for the concert Sunday. It's nice to be doing something completely different, although I can't quite get the Buxtehude out of my head while I'm running up all those hills. I'm looking forward to a big nap this afternoon.

------ is of course, full of interesting things this week. Also, thank you for surviving that abnormally long blog. You deserve a medal.