Friday, March 16, 2018

If you want to get to Carnegie Hall you have to catch a lot of pitas, apparently

It's been a pretty intense week of Pita Catching around here. 

I would have called it an intense week of practicing, but my phone, which knows all about these things, decided to auto-correct "practicing" to "pita catching" when I texted my wife what I was up to, so I've kind of adopted the term. 

Pita catching comes in a variety of forms. It helps to be familiar with all of them, because when you are on a deadline (and you are) you will necessarily experience all of them in a whirlwind of contiguous sensations which are emotionally and physically exhausting enough when you know they are coming. Not to recognize that the valleys of despair are just a normal part of the journey is to succumb completely. And remember, ain't nobody got time for that. 

Palm Sunday is just over a week away now, and for the occasion I've selected a complex piece for organ solo by Jean Langlais (Les Rameaux, or "The Palms").  I've never played it before, and because of my schedule this year so far I've been unable to get a head start on it; so Monday was my first chance to tackle it. I skipped what I call the "introduction phase" which is just looking the piece over, reading through it a time or two, spending 20 minutes practicing bits of it and putting it away for later, given the demands of the calendar. Given the size and difficulty of the piece--nine pages of complex French harmonies and not a single bar of repetition anywhere--my plan was to pounce full out and get as much of the piece familiar and under my fingers at a slow tempo as soon as possible. That first day I managed to practice the entire piece in about four hours.

This meant combining the steps of "discovery" and "the pain." Discovery is obviously fun because you are finding new things, hearing exotic harmonies, enjoying how the composer put the piece together, even sometimes puzzled. It was also mildly intoxication because it reminds me of the Resurrection movement from the Symphonie-Passion by Marcel Dupre which I played years ago in my first year in Illinois, and a flood of associative memories hovered close by without my invitation. The pain comes in when your brain, realizing it is a muscle, and that you have tried to assimilate 9 pages of notes in a single morning, begins to get very tired and bruised. At that point, repeating phrases and whole sections is a lot like bench pressing. Each one is a struggle and leaves you tired. Then you take a short break, brace your courage, and do it again. The longer you practice, the harder it gets. It is an enigma that sometimes practice seems to make a piece worse. This is mainly true in the early stages, and in the first days, when the brain is trying to catch hold of all that new information.

The despair sets in the next day, when, despite four hours of work the day before, you feel as though you have had never seen the piece before, and that nothing you have done is having any impact whatever. This is because it takes the brain a few days to build all of the neuron highways to put it all in storage. Knowing this, you keep practicing, waiting for that eventual day or hour when all of the sudden the piece starts to feel familiar, as if you HAD been practicing all this time.

 I was feeling like a goldfish on Tuesday, with the fabled 3 second memory. Repetitions did little to improve my comfort with the materials. Then I went through a stage where the passages would start to improve after several repetitions, but if I went on to something else and then came back to them I had to start as if from the beginning. On Wednesday the situation was no better--at the start. However, later in the day the piece did assemble itself fairly quickly and I was able to play it from start to finish--a phenomenon I have been aware of for a long time. No results, no results, then suddenly--whoosh. Progress. 

I once had a neighbor who wondered how I practiced and asked if I just played pieces all the way through over and over. Any good musician knows that is not how to practice; however, at this stage in a piece's practice history I will often play through. It gives me an overhead view of the whole, and what it is like to get there. Once I've gotten the piece assembled the first time I am able to see all of the parts that aren't going as well. If I have a close deadline, I also know at this point how close I am to being able to "fake it"--that is, get through it somehow, in case I run out of time to clean and oil all the details. I played through five times before I went to lunch. On Thursday I did more of that. I called it the "fast and sloppy" stage, because I am grasping the whole and even playing it not far from tempo, but am making mistakes. Next I took the piece apart again, and worked each section carefully.  That was Thursday. There was evening, and there was morning.

By Friday the piece is where I wanted it to be at the end of the first week--essentially playable, and in need of more repetition and reinforcement. I've gone from repetition that hurts to repetition that feels great, because my mind, like any mind, enjoys reinforcing what it knows already. My brain is now practicing on its own time, as well, which is a huge supplement. I am no longer afraid of being able to play the piece, having another week to work on it. The second week will be much easier than the first. And a lot more fun. It sounds like music now. I am using a full registration. I know why this man has such a reputation. It is an awesome piece of music.

I am still not done. I can play most of the piece once I've practiced for a while. I can't begin to play it cold, the first time. Nor would I want to do it under nerves, or after a lengthy choir rehearsal and a pancake dinner. This requires much more tightening, and a firm grasp of every measure. I've done this many times before, and I know what it will take, and how long. How a piece seems to accelerate as it is learned, so not to despair in the early days, but to get as much of a head start as possible, and let your head do its part. To work everything carefully, and then try to put it together, to take it apart again, lather, rinse, repeat. And all under constant diagnosis. Because even when a passage sounds fine to a listener, it may not be. If it took too much mental effort to get to a chord, even if there was no hesitation, that part will not withstand pressure later on. The better one can diagnose, the better one can improve. It also makes practice, with all of its ups and downs, much more interesting. I never look at a watch, count repetitions, or wonder when I can be finished. My brain is too busy for that.

 Speaking of which, it is a new day, and I've got more pitas to catch.

Friday, March 9, 2018

If you're just joining us...

I seem to be making a number of new musical friends lately, who may be new to this blog, so I thought I'd give a little introduction.

First, the basics. I'm Michael Hammer. I'm a pianist and organist, composer, teacher, and blogger, and I live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This blog is attached to a rather involved website with hundreds of articles and recordings devoted to all kinds of things musical which I've been running since 2002.

When I started pianonoise, I was a graduate student in piano performance at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. Once I earned a Masters and Doctorate there, I started spending more time hanging out with the organ, which is why, as I write this, the banner picture at the top of the blog is a shot of me at the organ. It's kind of a running joke (inside my own head, anyway) that there is more organ-noise around here sometimes. I've been keeping a running tally of recordings in each category to find out.

When I started the website back in the Middle Ages, audio files on the internet were just beginning. For a few years I amused myself writing commentary about various things, and making about a hundred awful sounding recordings which I later repented of when I got a better micing system and regular access to a better piano. I spent about ten years in Illinois during this time. Eventually I started this blog (2012). It's mission is to engage regular folks in the experience of listening to and enjoying music--mostly for piano and organ. It also included blogs written for fellow musicians to sharpen their skills, and some blogs about being a church organist.

These days the challenge is to keep track of all of that.

The easiest way to experience Pianonoise is to check out the homepage every week. I update on Fridays with a batch of new articles and recordings. Some of the articles and recordings aren't really new--I recycle things from years past, but their currency isn't as important as it would be if I were writing about politics or the day's news. After all, Bach is still dead. And his music still lives.

The other thing to note is that while I lead a varied existence, at some point I'll shed light on all of the various sections of pianonoise, new and old, by linking to them on the homepage. Or, if you are intrepid, you can go exploring, by way of the site index, or the listening archive. I try to archive everything worth keeping. I can't promise you won't get lost, and as I happen to be in the middle of a major website renovation in 2018, you might not always find things in the same place.

The site is meant to be a digital extension of myself, and what I find valuable (which is often--but not always-- the thoughts and compositions of other people, and the study of our various traditions upon which I build). It can provide a useful counterpoint to a live concert, for example (i.e., you can often hear me play the music before, or after, the concert, right here).

Everything that you hear is something I have recorded myself, and some of it I've even written (or improvised). My thoughts are my responsibility, although, like everything else's, they are largely inherited. I do try to examine them before I give them back to the universe.

Keep an eye on the upcoming events at the top of the homepage when it is active. Or, you can get on my email list (send to michael@pianonoise: subject "email please") and I'll let you know when I'm giving a concert.

See you around the piano!

Friday, March 2, 2018

The organ: from enthusiastic students to tired instructor!

For the past five weeks, 44 of my best friends have gathered in the sanctuary at Third Church every Thursday afternoon to listen to me wax eloquent about the glories of the organ, and occasionally to let some of the instrument's finest composers take a turn. It's been one of the offerings of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute of the University of Pittsburgh, which I describe as a kind of college for seniors.

For nearly two hours each week I held forth about the history of the instrument, which begins in the 3rd century BC, demonstrated all the knobs, buttons, manuals, pedals, and special features of the unique instrument at Third Church, and played about a half-hour mini concert. It's been quite a bit of work to put it all together, but quite a lot of fun, too. And these folks have been really enjoying it, and, engaged, have been asking good questions. Alas, all good things come to an end. Yesterday was our last meeting. Five weeks is a short semester, though, given all the preparation, probably long enough for this particular course. Did I mention 30-some slides as well?

Also, I've been yearning to get back to the piano. In fact, when someone asked what I was going to teach the next course about, I suggested that while nothing has been decided yet, that it might involve the piano. In any case, our sanctuary seems to be a good place to meet, even though it is not on the official campus. It's on a major bus line so people can get to it easily, and our staff and congregation really like having it here. It gets people in the building on a week day afternoon, which, after the busy sewing mission in the basement on Wednesdays, means two days a week that aren't Sunday. That seems like a good use of space.

And while it lasted, THE ORGAN: FROM PORTABLE PIPES TO MASSIVE MUSICAL MACHINE, which title is a bit fanciful and alliterative, but don't knock it, it got 44 people to sign up for a 5 week class about the organ!--while it lasted, it was great fun to be able to share the wonderful music and to demonstrate the unique properties of the instrument. I've given organ demonstrations before, but having nearly 10 hours of class time spread over five weeks allowed a depth and detail that I've not been able to go into during those at best hour-long demonstrations. Since I proceeded historically, I could ignore all of the buttons and studs for a couple of weeks since Bach didn't have them, and really get into the different stops and sound families on the organ. We also spent time looking at different pipes and talking about how they are designed, how the pipes are tuned, and so on. We didn't actually go into the pipe room (slides) because that would have involved signing release forms longer than the phone book, but I've been up there and enjoyed describing its awe-inspiring and caution-inducing atmosphere while showing pictures of everything my camera could grasp.

Then electricity came along and the organ became a rather different instrument. We were able to discuss images of the organ in pop culture (more slides) as well as hone in on two major types of pieces written for the organ: fugues and toccatas. Of course I played some of the most familiar, but I also made time for some rarities that I particularly enjoy. And in addition to music from Baroque Germany and Romantic France, we heard music from Italy, Spain, England, and America, from composers living and dead. During the penultimate week we discussed the improviser's art, and I had a go at making the mysteries of making it up seem less unfathomable. There was some participation. We'll leave it at that! (smile)

All in all, a successful venture. Students were asking the next course offering by the second week, the church would like to host it again, and the administration seems pleased. So if I'm a bit tired this morning, it is in the best sense. It is time for a break, then on to other things. But, ah, that was fun. And my online "students" will also reap the benefits. See you back here next week.

Friday, February 23, 2018

And when you're bad, you're awful

There are, it seems to me, two ways to make a positive difference in the world. One is to do something really well. That might, if it were a musical composition, or a work of art, or a figure skating routine, or a well cooked meal, bring joy to the beholders. It might also inspire them to reach new heights in their own endeavors.

The other way is to be really bad at what you are doing. This has the useful effect of making people who might otherwise feel nervous around you and your accomplishments feel relieved that, hey, that sort of failure happens to you, too, that you are a regular person after all, and that maybe they can, perhaps without even trying too hard, do a bit better.

I took the second path this week, and you're welcome.

Well, it wasn't on purpose.

A few weeks ago we had some foul weather in Pittsburgh and I was casting about for ways I might bring a class I was teaching to the people I was teaching on the chance that the snow and ice that was closing schools on Wednesday continued into Thursday and half the students (who are adults and drive themselves or take busses) couldn't show up. I decided to try to figure out how to go live on Facebook. I have a page (www.facebook/pianonoise) if you're interested.

I put up a video of myself playing the organ, and doing some talking to see if the microphone worked for both. Unfortunately you can't really test the system without broadcasting it to the universe (or at least the miniscule part of the universe that is interested). It wasn't a great video for various reasons but I got around a hundred views fairly quickly, which is more attention than most of my posts and recordings get. I thought about it and decided maybe I ought to find some way to do videos and embed them at pianonoise. People are far more interested in things they can see than merely hear. I've got plenty of nice recordings at pianonoise but a lot of them are gathering cyberdust because they aren't videos. So in return for the awful sound quality and the shaking picture, I'd get more traffic.

Then I realized that with the season of Lent coming up, it might be a useful discipline to try to improvise something on the organ every day until Easter and put that out live on Facebook. The only problem with that is that Lent lasts 40 days, which is a lot of daily improvisations. Also, I decided to do them at 8 in the morning, which is when my brain really isn't working very well, creatively or otherwise.

Well, it was supposed to be a Lenten discipline of sorts. And since it didn't involve sleeping on a bed of nails or taking a vow of silence or eating cockroaches on Fridays I'm probably not going to be sainted for it. But it hasn't been too easy. In addition to the vulnerability that comes with trying to make up something on demand in public that is half decent every morning for five minutes, it turns out I am a clutz with a camera.

I knew that already. But now so does everybody else.

The first couple of days weren't so bad. I started by lodging the phone between a couple of stop knobs at the bottom of the console. But my feet weren't visible. It was just my hands playing, close-up. So I tried something new. I got a music stand and put the camera on it, farther away.

Now when you do that you are faced with a problem, which is that you can't see what your camera sees. I thought I would turn the camera around, a la selfie-mode so I could see whether it was getting the organ into the picture, but when you do that it reverses the picture and when your hands are traveling to the right the notes are getting lower, which is disorienting. So I tried to reverse the reverse.

That was a really bad day. Something didn't take and I ended up with a seven-minute video of the front of the music stand. You could hear the sound but there was no picture. That was also the day that the video refused to embed in my website. Bad day all around. Later there was even some funny business with the security on my web site.

 I had a really crummy improvisation or two right after that also. I'm glad not many people were watching (yet).

Next I decided I'd had it with close, error-prone camera work and decided to capture the whole vast tableaux of the church, complete with the massive Tiffany stained glass window that I can see from the console. It looks rather nice, and I may have even played decently. Yesterday I followed up this bit of good luck with another close shot, the first five seconds of which looks like an earthquake while I'm trying to get the camera to sit still at the right angle.

I've always found those first few seconds of amateur videos annoying. When I make audio recordings, I edit out that part when I'm running to the opposite end of the church or adjusting the bench or picking stops. But you can't do that with live video. Actually, maybe you can. I'm currently trying to find out if I could start the video a few seconds in. It might save some seizures.

Anyway, I've got 32 days to learn.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Piano vs. Organ (part 3)

We get tourists, sometimes. Or visitors. In any case, a young woman walked into our sanctuary one afternoon while I was practicing the organ and decided to ask the question that was pressing on her mind: which is harder to play, the piano or the organ?

She did not, it seems, want a complicated answer.

I've become proficient at both instruments, and I don't like to disparage either of them. And I like to get people to think, which usually requires a longer answer, which is something for which patience is required.

The piano, I explained, has a sustaining pedal, and an organ does not. So you can play a group of low notes and hold the sound of them while your hands are in the air leaping to notes far away. This is impossible on the organ where the sound ends the moment your hands quit the keys (depending on the building's reverb, I guess) and generally tends to sound stupid on an organ. Therefore, leaps are one of several things that abound in the piano literature but do not in pieces written for the organ. Also the piano tends to emphasize hand crossings, and rapid runs more than pieces written for the organ do. So in that way, the piano requires something that the organ usually does not. It is also an instrument that rewards or punishes according to the subtlety of the touch, where an organ has a little more room for error. There the articulation matters, but a heavier attack on one note in a group will not produce a distracting bang like it will on the piano, ruining the phrase.

I said all this to set it in counterpoint to the next part, which is what most people would assume I would say, namely that the organ has all kinds of buttons and knobs that the piano does not have, and notes to be played with the feet on top of that, and is therefore a more complicated machine than the piano, case closed.

Actually, I didn't close the case, but my interlocutor did. She decided the organ was way more complicated and that was that. And therefore, I suppose, better. Or more praiseworthy as a pursuit, anyway. After all, the technical difficulty score counts big, just ask the Olympic judges.

And considering that the organ at Third Church has 175 ranks and about 188 knobs, with 4 manuals, two rows of couplers which I haven't counted, probably around 40 toe studs and 50 thumb pistons, 4 expression pedals, two kinds of crescendo, and a magic drawer with multiple features I would need several paragraphs to begin to describe...well, it's a large organ. I don't know that it is really fair comparing it to a piano since it isn't really an average organ. It is complicated. And difficult. And maybe I should get  a gold star for being able to play it. And maybe, when people simply want to be really impressed by something I should leave well enough alone and let them be impressed.

But I still like to think. And I think that life is not about being impressed by something that is difficult if your appreciation stops there. Admiration is only a start. And though I've noticed people at dinner parties would rather hear about the organ than they would the piano that nobody is playing organ music on the radio. Not even the classical station. People aren't lined up to come to organ concerts either. I hope I can do something about that.

Meanwhile, the piano in our sanctuary is out of tune. The tuner comes next week. I'm looking forward to that. I've been missing the piano. It does only have one manual, and only three pedals for the feet, no knobs, no buttons. But it is a wonderful instrument. Many feel a closer connection to it than they do the mighty organ. I can understand that. I'll be making more pianonoise very soon. Until then, Hector and I are going to make some wonderful music together.

What, I can't give the organ a name?

Friday, February 9, 2018

Watch your step

Last week I got another surprise. I'm in the midst of teaching a class on the organ, which includes miniature concerts, and as next week's class is on 19th century French literature (and includes a fun bit about the organ in popular culture; i.e., as an instrument of terror) I decided it was time to learn the Boellmann Toccata. This is probably the easiest of the many flashy toccatas I've already learned to play. I was expecting to have it licked in a day or two.

That didn't quite happen. One of the reasons for it was that it was trickier to memorize than I thought it would be. Although quite repetitive, the phrase endings are all different, so that it is like being on the same section of road and having to take a different exit each time.

Of course, I could have just gotten a page turner for the performance, but that would have meant that every day during practice I still would have to stop every 30 seconds to turn the page. Mr. Boellmann keeps the hands busy the entire length of the piece so there is no way to turn the page without stopping the music altogether. And the music from our church library looks to be from about 1920 and is quite brittle, so every time I did turn a page part of the page would come apart in my hand.

I did eventually get the piece memorized but it took about five days. Most of you are realizing how wonderfully impatient I am. If it had been a more difficult piece like the Vierne Final (from Symphony no. 1) I would have expected it to take a couple of weeks (it did, and that didn't bother me very much). I'm realistic enough to expect some things to take time; it was the mis-diagnosis that threw me.

But there was another issue at hand, an issue of execution.  Once the piece was beginning to function as a piece of music (that is, mostly memorized: the actual playing of the notes while looking at them took very little time at all as the piece is practically sightreadable) I was still having a bit of difficultly getting the thing to work without any hesitations. And that came down to those pedals you see at the top of the page. Not the organ pedals, the several gas pedals. Those are the expression pedals. They make each of the manuals that are under expression (which does not include the loudest of the four) louder or softer according to whether you've got them pedal to the floor, or in the up position, or somewhere in between. The fact that there are four of them is rather new to me, and is a sign that I've got a pretty large organ console to deal with. Simply put, those pedals give the feet something else to do besides play notes and kick toe studs to change registration. Bach's organ didn't have them at all. They are an innovation dating from the 19th century.

Being able to find the correct expression pedal and depress it quickly enough that the musical flow isn't interrupted and I can also get in all the pedal notes and registration changes is a skill in which I am not surprisingly deficient. It is one of the fun things about being an organist. The organ isn't really one instrument. Depending on the size and makeup of the organ it can demand very different things from you. One of the things I learned this week was the ability to arhythmically deploy the expression pedal and to scan the console to make sure that all of the indicator lights were where I wanted them to be, all while the fingers were on autopilot and the memory was feeding them uninterrupted information. If they weren't I would have to make another try as soon as one of my feet was free for a moment. Organists practice the same gestures over and over to make sure that they can play consistently and smoothly, but it is a fine skill to be able to make adjustments to a performance that includes gestures that you have drilled into yourself just in case something goes a bit wrong. And that seems to require dividing one's brain up into more and more pieces, each acting independently.

That may not sound like a lot of fun (it is if you get it right, I suppose) but I did actually have some. Because of a leaky roof, the lights were out in the sanctuary last week. That made for a rather spooky atmosphere as I took on this rather spooky piece. And yes, that is an actual shot of the view from the organ console, not some stock Hollywood horror footage.

I also made this recording you so can enjoy it yourself, in the dark. I'll know if you don't turn off the lights as you listen.

Boellmann: Toccata from Suite Gothic

Friday, February 2, 2018

Februaries I have known

You may have picked up on this, but I am not a fan of February.

The novelty of winter has worn off, and all we have left is the grinding cold, the ice, the snow--I can do snow when it's fluffy and not too deep, it's even charming, but let's not have to spend an hour in the bitter cold trying to dig out one's car, shall we? And have I mentioned the wind? People fight most bitterly when they know they've lost, and the elements take after them. As the cold season draws to a close the wind can sometimes take your face off. Politely, of course.

You would think I would spend the month hibernating, but, it turns out, quite a few Februaries have featured major events. And, even if those events were laden with stress, they gave me something to focus on beside my dreary, Siberian thoughts.

Some of these were concerts. I recall a February when I appeared with orchestra, playing Brahms's Second piano concerto in Bb. This is quite a large piece, and a challenge to the technique and the stamina. I'd won a concerto competition a couple of years earlier and they put me on a subscription concert. I don't know why they picked February, but there it is. I think this was on the 20th of the month, the year I was a senior in college. Six days and several years later, I was on stage at Carnegie Hall (the one in New York, not Pittsburgh!). I remember several pep talks I've given myself and this one was focused on one thing: the music was not so hard, I could play it well, it is only because I am nervous that I am nervous. Just go out and do your thing and it will be fine. It was.

Of course, February is audition month. Curiously, I've forgotten the date of my audition for the Cleveland Institute of Music--it was sometime in late February, I think. I remember the weather at Oberlin pretty well, though--bitterly cold and windy. I chose Cleveland. (No tropical paradise there, either)

My audition for graduate school was actually on the 1st of March. But that still made February the operative month. When I auditioned for my doctorate it was sometime in late February, but I can't remember the date for that, either.

I think that my cousin's wedding, all those many years ago, was in a  February, in Florida. I was 13. It was probably my first wedding reception (that I played for). And to think that I lost my amateur status so young. Actually, I don't remember getting paid. Who knows? Doesn't matter.

In the church calendar, February is often the start of Lent. Having served as a church organist lo these many years I can remember several challenging Februaries which featured some ambitious programming. One year I played two of the three Choral Preludes by Cesar Frank on back-to-back weeks (while I was sick!). I also remember a 15 minute memorized delivery of a sketch by Mark Twain for the Ash Wednesday service (it fit the theme, honest). Lent was often a time for some hefty music, which is odd, because it is an old Catholic practice not to allow the organ to sound during Lent at all.

This year, February will be marked by a class I am teaching for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI). This program, run locally by the University of Pittsburgh, allows the 50+ crowd to sign up for classes as if they were in college. There are no degrees granted. My course is off campus at the church which features my new organ friend (see the last two weeks). It is about the history of the instrument, and includes musical performances of pieces representing the different schools and composers that make up the best of the organ literature. It also features an extended organ demonstration. In five weeks, we'll have time to talk about all the buttons, knobs, tabs, and toe studs. Which reminds me, I was going to count all of them to see just how many there were. I imagine my class would like to know.

I am writing this on Wednesday--tomorrow is the first class, and the weather is planning a nice respite from the snow and cold for just one day so I don't have to contemplate cancellation or a drop in attendance. Nice of it. We'll see how things progress--given a choice between two sessions, this nutcase chose February in order to be less busy at Easter.Thus it joins the parade of active Februaries, adding a bit of stress to the cold.  At least it keeps the mind occupied, and the fingers limber. And when it is over, I'll have survived another one.