Friday, February 21, 2020

Your February Musical Doodle

I may have mentioned a time or two that I have no great fondness for February, a month everyone else seems to enjoy greatly when they aren't complaining about the snow and the cold. In the popular estimation, January is the great villain, and lasts inordinately long, particularly when the Christmas tree is on the curb by the 26th of the previous month. I will, however, stick up for its successor as a legitimate claimant for the title of suckiest month, at the very least on the basis of inertia, which is what happens when one's defenses are all gone after three months of cold and dark and all of the good holidays have been squandered by a society in too much of a hurry to wait until we actually need them.

It can also make you grouchy.

In the past, I've survived the worst weeks of the year by finding something cheerful to occupy me. I will customarily by a box of kid's cereal each February, like Fruit Loops or Lucky Charms (I abstain the rest of the year). I also make a cheery pie or two.

Then there are musical pursuits, which can be charming in their own right. This year one thing led to another and I came across a set of variations by a living Italian woman named Carlotta Ferrari on the old American tune "Yankee Doodle." It's a doozy. She's a very prolific composer, and she likes to use various synthetic (newly created) scales to put the tune into different guises.

It just so happens that all of her music is available at the International Music Score Library Project, and it is under a Creative Commons License, which means I don't have to worry about getting sued for sharing her music with you. All I have to do is tell you who wrote it, and, as a bonus (which is technically not required of me), where you can find the music if you want to play it yourself.

I spent a couple of days learning and recording this piece, which did make a positive difference in my mood. I hope you have a sense of humor so that it can act positively on yours.

listen to   Carlatta Ferrari: Yankee Doodle Variations

Friday, February 14, 2020

It's not you, It's us

I may have been a little hard on Fred Chopin a couple of years ago. I shared a little waltz of his, which has since become a Valentine's Day staple around here, and suggested that he had written it in order to break up with his girlfriend--actually, to break off their engagement. It seemed better than a text message, but still.

I'm not sure now where I got the information that led me to that conclusion, but a Chopin biography I read more recently says that in fact Chopin very much wanted to marry the young woman, but her parents didn't think Chopin was marriage material, and they made her break it off. It was a distraught Chopin, then, that wrote that little waltz, not an irresponsible one.

When you are dealing with human motivations and behaviors you have to be careful. It is easy to deify persons of genius, and to think they can do no wrong. Scholars today general do not fall into that trap as they did in centuries past, and will often remind us, as Malcolm MacDonald did in his biography of Brahms, that regarding Brahms's emotional life "like most of us, he tended to make a mess of it." They are human, after all.

But it isn't all about individual choice, either. There are always powerful prejudices over which we have no control. One of them was that for centuries anytime a girl's parents saw a musician coming they presumed he was no good. Artists in general don't tend to swim in money, at least not their own. Some of our greatest have made piles of the stuff for subsequent generations: Mozart has spawned an entire industry and created who knows how many jobs by now, but it took awhile to take off: this was paying it forward two centuries before dot coms were not expected to turn a profit for a decade.

Chopin himself seems to have made a decent living by the end of his short life, mostly be selling his compositions (his unique brand of piano playing didn't fit the contemporary fad so his performing career was not very successful). That seems hard to believe given that there could not have been many who could actually play them, but it worked, apparently.

Still, in a capitalist economy, the people who create things can never really compete with the people who distribute them. Better to marry a merchant, a man of business. Or at least a musician who, like Clementi, went into business manufacturing piano so he could play them on the side.

Chopin spent most of his adult life in exile in Paris, away from his native Poland, and apparently without his early flame. The scholar who wrote the article for the New Grove dictionary thinks he barely even missed Poland, perhaps in order to counter  earlier writers' descriptions of an eternally homesick composer who turned out native dances as a source of ethnic pride and grief management.

The image of a composer seems to change with every generation. New evidence emerges, new writers see themselves or their era in their subject, reputations have to be made challenging the status quo, so that the more one reads the less sure one can be that they've gotten it right. And this is all before the era of fake news and bots.

But I'd like to apologize to Mr. Chopin. I think there is a very good chances that he was dealt with unjustly in this case. He may not always have been the easiest fellow to deal with, and his subsequent relationship with George Sand was stormy enough, but I'll let him and his frustrations rest in peace and not assume he had any more control over his destiny than most of us.

And in any case, he left us a very nice waltz.

see what I got you for Valentine's Day on

Friday, February 7, 2020

The not-so-great divorce

I just sent away for Quentin Faulkner's book "Wiser than Despair," a book whose existence I just discovered despite it being published some eight years ago. In it, the university professor will, as I understand it, share a number of observations, quotations, and thoughts about the church and the arts. I've been a sucker for books like that for at least a decade, because it seems rare that anybody would wish to discuss an amalgamation of the two areas.

The church and the arts seem to have parted ways three or four centuries ago, although even then they had a tenuous relationship. Now most serious artists practice their craft outside the walls of the church, frequently on a purely secular basis, even though art by definition asks the great questions of existence, which, according to some theologians, is exactly the point of religion. Only the church doesn't like the questions; it is more about giving the answers, and keeping people under control. Artists, like prophets, tend to get in the way of that. Experience with the arts can provoke strong emotional responses, which are frowned upon in many Sunday meetings, and cause one to think, which can also be a danger to an institution that often insists it has already done your homework for you.

Inside the church, there are arts with a small a. Music is generally allowed, although organists recognize that anything instrumental is often banished to before and after the service, while people are talking over our efforts. What is welcomed as a part of worship is mass participatory music, which has to be simple and repetitive, though sometimes a choir, still the subject of controversy because its anthems can be complicated, will be in the mix. The visual arts make minor appearances in only a few churches, and very occasionally even dance is allowed. But this is rare. And in any case, simplicity is the rule. It is probably just as well the Creator hid some of his stranger creatures thousands of miles under the sea--we don't seem to warm to the idea that diversity and complexity might actually be a part of the created order.

Hiding the arts from people may have been one of the wiser things the church did in terms of seeking mass popularity, which is clearly the aim here. Some of us will feel that a great deal has been lost in the process, but we would be in the minority.

The book should arrive in about a week. Most of its predecessors have, while interesting, not changed my life in any measurable way, but at least the authors have been interesting traveling companions. There have been sketches about Christian art, though eventually each has to admit that not much of it is practiced inside the walls of the church.

We are an interesting species. We have to have rituals, and a sense of predictable security. The arts tend to rouse us outside of that comfortable slumber. Occasionally we will respond positively--at a safe remove. The rest of the time it is the artists who had better be at a safe remove, like the mystics and the thinkers that the church has always found a place for behind the walls of their own institutions where they can't hurt anybody.

Still, they are there. I wonder how people can sleep at night.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Glenshaw? Glensha!

Last week I set up shop at a friendly little pipe organ north of Pittsburgh in the community of Glenshaw. Today I'm going to let you hear something I recorded on it, entirely gratuitously. I had just decided a day or so earlier it might be worth learning and recording a festive little piece by Samuel Scheidt known as Bergomasca (named for a region in north Italy whence came a rather addictive chord progression and a dance based on same). Since I like to let the voices of the various organs I come across in my travels speak for themselves whether I give a full concert on them or not (as in this case), I suddenly realized that this might be a nice test piece for said organ. So rather than playing the whole thing on a pleasant four-foot flute stop, I thought that each of the 21 very short variations should have its own sonic combination.

Now given that I had barely even learned to play the piece (I think I'd practiced it for maybe two days) it was an additional challenge to deploy the stop tabs every 8 seconds (I told you the variations were short!) but I took the challenge with no premeditated plan. Also I played the piece three times for even more variety. I was going to post them all, but then I decided that you have places to go and that even one listen is pretty indulgent of you.

So here it is. I realize a video would have been much more entertaining, but if you listen really carefully you just might be able to hear little blips between the sections when I am hastily depressing the stop tabs while thinking "hmm, this looks like a good combination"--like I said, I did not do a whole lot of preparation. Enjoy!

Scheidt: Bergomasca

and for additional stimulation, this week's edition of awaits.
*the title is a weird reference to a Dr. Who episode. If you were thinking I'd lost my marbles, why yes I have, thank you.

Friday, January 24, 2020

On location

One of the joys of playing the pipe organ is that each one is unique. That is true for pianos to some degree as well: each well made piano (particularly Steinways) have a unique sound. Last summer I had a chance to play the "Mr. Rogers" piano when it was still at WQED across from the studio where the show was taped. As I sat down at the piano I thought I'd play a little Mozart, but then suddenly "It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" and the trolley theme came out. It was surreal, because it sounded so much like what I'd heard coming through my television as a child. It was the same piano, playing the same music. It was like recognizing a familiar voice.

Pianos aren't always that easy to adjust to, however. The action can vary considerably, meaning it might be a lot harder to get the keys to go down. In other cases, you can practically just breathe on them. One of the scariest moments of my career was sitting down at an unfamiliar piano on which I had had no opportunity to rehearse and having to begin the concert with a very very very soft chord which I had to calibrate just right by sheer guesswork. I am happy to report that on this occasion I got it right, and the atmosphere was set for a very nice recital.

With the organ there is an entirely new dimension, however. The very sounds the the organ makes can be different. There is that standard family of sounds: foundation stops, flute stops, string stops, mixture stops, mutation stops, and so on, but they may be grouped differently on each manual. There may only be a few of each type, or a whole lot, depending on the size of the organ. The logic behind grouping those sounds, and getting the organ to do its best for you will change as well, dependent on the builder and their philosophy of sound, as well as the era in which it was built or the country of origin.

That can make things a challenge, but it is also a great deal of fun if you like variety. It will also mean that certain pieces sound best on different organs.

Today I paid a visit to Glenshaw, which is a small community northeast of Pittsburgh. I'll be playing on Monday's chapter meeting of the American Guild of Organists. The theme this time is "free and easy" meaning stuff that you can find online at the International Music Score Library Project (, and that can be played on next to no practice. I didn't really need to go up there to practice for such a simple performance--about a dozen of us are playing one piece each--but it was an excuse to get to know the organ and see what it could do. I got to spend an hour with it this morning. I also made a recording of the piece I'm playing on Monday so you can hear it as well.

Ashford: Postlude for Festival Occasions

I had already recorded this on my "home" organ (at the church where I regularly play), but this organ, while smaller, really holds its own. In fact, I suspect this is closer to the kind of "harmonium" instruments that would have been a part of the composer's 19th century America, and most often performances would have taken place on a similar sounding instrument in a similarly dry acoustic. Hurrah for authenticity!

Next week I'll post something else I recorded that really puts the organ through its paces and shows what all of the stops sound like.
to see what else the "pianonoiser" has been up to this week, go to

Friday, January 17, 2020

How to get your student to actually remember the G sharp

There's a meme going around among piano teachers which shows a cat with an extremely surprised face, and the caption indicates that it is the teacher's reaction when the student is playing something in the key of A Major and "actually remembers the G sharp!"

It's a big hit with teachers, of course, because teachers like knowing that other teachers are just as frustrated as they are about the same issues. And the cat is really cute.

That isn't going to stop your student from continuing to abuse the G natural, though, and you might be wondering if there is a better way to go through life than to pleasantly remind them every time they do that. I thought I'd offer a few observations. The first is that the primary way I was taught to do this, by playing scales, is largely a waste of time.

Memorizing key signatures often seems irrelevant to the student, much like asking what happened in 1858. Scales can be the muscular equivalent of that. If you are going to have the student start every lesson with scales, which students almost universally hate, why not try something different?

Your approach can depend largely on the personality of the student: a few times I have actually taught all of the scales in one lesson, rather than parceling them out a week at a time and trusting the student to remember what A Major is supposed to feel like when it is needed. In these cases I go all the way around the circle of fifths and have the student play each scale while explaining how the system works. And the students actually enjoyed it. In fact, they had fun! This avoids the problem of parceling things out a bit at a time and making scales into a thing that you just have to do at the start of every practice, which have nothing to do with the music you want to play, and are an inviolable pattern of boring notes.

Understanding the entire system of keys is something you can try (mainly with older students, I think)--not to mention that it will seem like a challenge to do them all at once, and that can be exciting!, but if you are stuck on one scale a week, then don't let that scale remain an unthinking up-to-the top down-to-the-bottom routine. Change up the fingerings. Have the student try 1 2 3 2 3 4 3 4 5 4 5 6, etc. or 1 2 3 4 2 3 4 5 3 4 5 6 and so on. If you have an engaging personality you can get lots of things to sound fun that aren't if you don't. The idea here is that the student has to learn to think in A major rather than just put it on auto-pilot and cruise up an down in a familiar pattern that, even if mastered, does not guarantee that G sharp is going to seem a preferable alternative to g natural in measure 7 of their new piece, in the right hand. There needs to be a connection.

And here's where it gets weird. The one thing that has helped me the most, I think, has nothing to do with scales. I learned to improvise. Make up my own tunes. Quite a useful skill when you have a deadline and no time to practice, or suddenly have to fill time with music at a party or a church service that you didn't know about beforehand. If you have to create something in A Major, you think about it more. Have the student make up melodies using A major. The G# has to be reinforced every time you need it, randomly, in the wild, on demand, and while thinking about other things (like how I want to melody to go) rather than as a thing that happens near the top of a pattern I don't want to play.

As always, the keys are to make one have to think about it--often, and to reinforce the idea--often, rather than the make that G sharp something that exists out there in the ether that I have to do because teacher reminds me to do it once every six weeks when I have a piece with a G-sharp in it. Then I don't remember because: who needs to know? If it's part of a system I understand, it it is a challenge I like to undertake, if it is a pattern I use frequently, if it is just plain fun because I like the feel of a raised fourth finger, things are quite different. Ultimately success motivates and carries the rest of it along.

Of course, if the student never sees a piano between lessons this will be less effective. Eventually you should make room in your studio for somebody who does notice an instrument once in a while.

But in the meantime, give them a reason to know their g-sharps. Eventually it will seem natural. Pardon the pun.

Now get out there and look sharp!

Friday, January 10, 2020

The Lighter Side of the Organ

This month's PianonoiseRadio program features pieces that are tuneful, fun, and light for an instrument that many of us think only plays for solemn occasions. Although the repertoire does tend in a theater organ direction, there are no actual pieces for theater organ, nor did I record anything on one. The accompanying, picture, however, shows me sitting at the console of the Mighty Wurlitzer at the restored vaudeville theater in Champaign, Illinois, for a New Year's Eve concert with The Chorale, trying not to look down, or to knock the elevator switch off of the bench (it was not attached!). I know, it doesn't look like I'm up very high in the picture, but the pit is about 10 feet below the stage, so there is some height involved if you look straight down from the bench.

The first piece on the program is something I discovered last month on an organist's online group. The Postlude for Festival Occasions was written by Emma Louise Ashford, presumably to be played at the conclusion of a church service, and quite likely on a harmonium, or pump organ. I recorded it at my church on a large Allen using the Skinner sample set. Everything sounds more theatrical when you employ the tremolo.

Louis James Alfred Lefebre-Wely seems to have had the same attitude toward church music as Ms. Ashford, because the Sortie that follows (French for "exit" meaning a postlude for church) is just as light and fun as the previous selection. Lefebre-Wely was frequently badgered by colleagues who didn't think he was taking his vocation seriously enough.

In case we need a pause after all that festivity, the next piece is slow and peaceful. Charles Marie Alkan was a child prodigy who spent most of his later life in self-imposed isolation. His 13 prayers were probably written for the harmonium (ie, the pump organ) but I again played it on a full-blooded church organ. This second of the set was sufficiently melodious to make the cut. And again I made use of the tremolo.

Edwin Lamare was a virtuouso English organist who spent a couple of years in Pittsburgh as the civic organist (back when they had those); the organ he presided over is currently in disrepair and unplayable. I recorded his pastorale a couple of years ago. It is also a pleasant little piece, not too difficult, except for the part where he insists on making one hand play on two manuals at once (thumbing down).

We are back at church, which I admit is a strange place to spend half a program dedicated to just having a little fun and relaxation, but some organists have approached their task with more solemnity than others. Domeinco Zipoli wrote this ditty for the place in the service when the priest is cleaning up after the eucharist.

A few years ago I played a house concert (it had a large ground floor; about 50 people managed to get in) and I included a piece by Jean Phillip Rameau to begin. While I had a volume of his pieces with me, I recorded a few others, including this little gem, which was intended for harpsichord, but I thought it would sound nice on the organ. I was right.

The first thing I remember about the Mozart Rondo all Turca, which I recorded as part of a set of sonatas on the organ because our piano was out of tune at the time, is how exhausted I was the afternoon I recorded it. If I hadn't told you you wouldn't have known; such is the magic of recording. I am rested and feeling much better a year later!

The year I had cancer I remember hearing this Lemmens Pastorale on an internet radio station devoted to the organ 24/7. It sounded like a nice little piece I should play once I was feeling better. And indeed, it is now associated in my mind with my first Christmas in Pittsburgh. The part in the middle with the weird sounds may have caused the comment from a parishioner at a church where I subbed one Sunday that "the organ doesn't normally sound like that." No, I'm sure it doesn't, but when the composer asks for something unusual, you can either lock him up, or---give it to him!

We'll conclude with Lefebure-Wely's other most famous piece (depending on who you read it is the most famous or it is the other one). This one was recorded in 2014 in Illinois at an organ rededication concert and is from the period of my first discovery of this interesting man and his music. I've since played it at Heinz Chapel here in Pittsburgh (but did not record it), and this year finally got around to the other postlude/Sortie, the one in Bb which you heard earlier, eminating from the lovely Austin at Westminster Presbyterian whence I concertized this past summer.

For those of you who enjoy reading the manual, thanks for lending me your eyeballs. Now you can join the rest of your fellow listeners and enjoy the music!

and of course, there is a whole lot more this week at