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.

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

Friday, July 5, 2019

Are we having fun yet?

They used to say the grass was greener on the other side of the fence. I'm not sure if anybody knows what grass is anymore because we're always looking at our phones. But the idea was that everything looks better to you except your own situation. If you somehow got on the other side of the fence, that is, wound up in a different situation, you would find that it wasn't as terrific as you supposed.

Quite a number of people, on the outside looking in, imagine that being able to play the piano for a living is a pretty wonderful gig. I'm not going to argue. For one thing, it won't change anybody's mind: see the whole thing with the grass. For another, they're right. At least, to a degree.

It is nice to be able to sit down at a musical instrument and competently produce sound whenever you want to. Of course, you don't just get to do it whenever you want to. It is regulated. Which means you now have a series of deadlines, performances, and pressures related to said relaxing activity.

At the most basic level everybody gets what it is like to show up to work when you don't feel like it. For some people that is practically all the time. Others are more fortunate. In principle, most musicians love what they are doing. They may or may not love actually doing it while they are doing it.

Again, most people can relate to the whole being nervous in front of an audience thing, or having to have your homework done by a particular date, when the homework is something that may be reviewed by hundreds of people sitting watching you give your presentation for an hour or so at a piano. The thing is, grass being pretty much the same color everywhere, people tend to assume that the guy up on the stage appearing to have a good time is actually having a good time. Which, speaking from long experience, I can assert, is sometimes true, and sometimes isn't.

I bring this up because last Thursday's organ recital was of particular interest to me precisely because I remember spending bits of it trying to relax and enjoy myself. I hate being nervous (who doesn't) and I'd rather be able to project some of that musical joy on my own person while I'm at it. The program in question was on the lighter side, too, so the effect should have been one of having a musical good time. Also, since I'd managed, rather miraculously, to be adequately prepared for this third different recital program in as many weeks, there wasn't any good reason to panic. I told myself that, and I was, to a large degree successful at managing my mood. This, in turn, probably helped to make the performance work.

Being housed in a human body means any number of strange conditions may visit you in the course of a day, and being called on to perform at a particular time on a particular day come what may means you will inevitably be in pretty much all of them at some point. Some of them can be lived with, some have to be overcome.

Then, of course, there is the effect of giving several performance close together. Wanting to just be able to relax and learn new music without the pressure of deadlines, because deadlines are stressful, and the grass is greener when you get to do what you aren't doing (learning new music is actually not that much fun when I think about it). Trying to set aside the cumulative effect of tiredness and continual extra practice, mental discipline, dealing with side issues, and the like.

Learning to relax and enjoy what you are doing when you are doing it is an art that can take a lifetime to learn. Sometimes the difference between giving an adequate performance and a great performance is exactly the difference between being afraid and letting go and doing it.

I gave that speech to myself at Carnegie Hall once. Then I came home, and a day later was accompanying somebody for a voice lesson. For some reason the teacher, telling her student to relax, told her, "don't worry. This isn't Carnegie Hall."

Ah, but it is. And it isn't. And it really doesn't make a difference. All the world's a stage anyway.

Get comfortable.


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Friday, June 28, 2019

Doing Doughnuts


This month I have four different concert programs in five weeks. Last week there were three piano concerts in Ohio, featuring two different programs. This was on the theory (proven correct) that a few persons might be at two of the concerts and the repetition might look lazy. Yesterday I returned to Pennsylvania for an organ recital about a half hour outside of Pittsburgh. It was a summer concert in connection with a farmer's market next store to the church which wanted to capitalize on the foot traffic. I planned my program accordingly, playing lighter fare (even the Bach item was on the virtouso side) including Ives's "Variations on 'America' for the 4th of July. In two weeks I'll be at St. Paul Cathedral in Pittsburgh in a program of what I promised yesterday to people I talked to afterward would be much "better behaved" than the one I had just played.

All of this, of course, does require a certain amount of planning. It is not, in my opinion, safe to begin learning a concert program the week before the concert! How does it work for me? Here are a few principles.

First, I try to start preparing as early as possible. Even touching a piece for a day or two and then having to leave it aside from general busyness can be quite profitable. It never seems like the piece is quite as unfamiliar when you come back to it even if it is weeks later. The brain stores the experience somewhere, it seems.

Second, planning programs that mainly consist of music which already has a performance history helps. There was one completely new item on yesterday's program, one that I played once a year ago, one that I've played several times in the past few years, and one that has had two fairly recent performances, that is. in the last couple of years. At St. Paul there will be one piece I just learned this semester, and several others that have only been played one time a few years ago, but I've made sure to compensate for this by preparing this concert the most, and starting the earliest. The piano concerts consisted of pieces I had pretty handily under my fingers (except for one last minute addition).

Third, I triaged the programs in terms of how much work each program was likely to need and which pieces would cause the most trouble. As I've written before, when you are working with a lot of music and on short deadlines, this skill is essential. I'm rarely wrong about how long it will take to get comfortable with a piece, and if I am, it is usually because I wasn't optimistic enough. Of course, if you practice something for four hours straight, one day can do wonders.

Then comes the juggling. pick up a program, practice for several days, well in advance, put it away so you can work on something else. As the program gets close it is time to cram--well, concentrate on polishing the concert in front of you. In between comes a doughnut hole of neglect, which, if it is large enough, may require periodically playing through the program even if no great progress is made in terms of practice.

This spring I began from the back, working on the St Paul program--most of it, anyway--so that it would have lots of time to mature. I then began work on the piano programs, leaving the other organ recital till later, when the piano programs were almost upon me. At that point I spent the week mainly practicing not for the concert I was about to give but for the next in the series. The strategy mainly worked. There was one piece on one of the piano concerts in which in one of the difficult passages I basically threw up all over the piano, but otherwise, the concerts all went well. The organ recital went well yesterday, too. As my hometown newspaper would have so imaginatively put it "A good time was had by all." (thousands of English teachers just howled).

Three down, one to go. 

And if I need something to do with my time in two weeks, I've got five programs to get ready for fall. 

Friday, June 21, 2019

Pushing my buttons

I have had the same digital recorder for 16 years. There were several times when it seemed to be given up its electronic ghost, but then somehow, through a lot of cajoling, colorful language, and dumb luck, I managed to keep it going. It has made well over a thousand recordings, and many of them turned out well enough to post. It has spent a large portion of its life with the skin off, exposing the wires and requiring me to have the position of the buttons memorized, or take time finding it.

But it soldiered on. Until, finally, after months of periodically destroying SD cards by writing bad sectors on them, I had had enough. So I got a new recorder.

The technological leap is in many ways astounding. Now a single memory card will get me 50 hours of recording time. Live concerts are now easy to record without having to flush the card as soon as you get a spare minute. If you have a concert the next day, or something else you want to record, there is plenty of room. And when it comes time to dump the contents onto your computer it no longer takes 20 minutes to get an hour of audio to load. The new time is about 45 seconds.

I did have some issues though. There is naturally a learning curve with all things new. What I was not expecting is that I would have problems with the menu button. Right out of the box it didn't seem to work. What gives these days?

It turns out that you need to push the button the proper way. Having spent all week using my laptop at a 90 degree angle so the power cord will connect while I wait for a new one that FedEx sent from California by way of Paraguay, I can appreciate the need to do funny things to get things to work. Half of my career seems to be about making things happen when reasonable people would have given up long ago.

It seems odd that I would be pushing the button the wrong way. It's a button, right? You just push it.

My theory is that for most people that's exactly what happens. But for me, trained in 80 flavors of staccato, whose vocation is the use of the fingers on plastic levers to make sounds, there is more than one way to push a button. If you do it with a kind of languorous ultra-legato, pressing and holding with a heavy, insistent finger, it never reacts. But an articulate, rapid flick of the finger gets it to work every time.

I'm glad I figured that out. I would have had to take it back to the store and started my search over. Instead, I have memorized one more little sub-routine for getting through life that works and is simple once you know it.

Welcome to my weird little world. Even pushing a button is an adventure in piano technique.

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In case you were wondering about the package with my new power cord in it (see last week's post), it was "guaranteed" to arrive on Monday at my temporary abode in Ohio where I knew I would be spending the week when I ordered it. It is now five days late, having started in California, and, according to the tracking information, been through New Mexico, Texas, Missouri, then Florida (where it spent 3 days for no apparent reason), Kentucky, then it passed Cincinnati and spent a day in Columbus. It made the remaining 90 minute car trip back to Cincinnati, where it was transferred to the US postal service, which now has the package at the local post office and should be delivered today. Having just wrapped up 3 concerts in Ohio I plan to return to Pittsburgh today. Which means the package may have to be re-mailed the rest of the way. Apparently "guarantee" is one of those words that has changed meaning recently.


Friday, June 14, 2019

Cue the fiddle music

My dearest reader,

It has been nearly four days since a most unfortuitous calamity has sent me careening into the 19th century. The power cord on my computer has become irrevocably damaged and to such a grave extent that I fear for the continued necessary usage of my computer. I have had to subsist on all manner of borrowed electronic contrivances. Only my phone has stood by me during this time of severe trial. I hope, God willing, to regain the use of my computer if by the next post should come the new power cord which I have ordered sent to my current address. It will only be then that my regular mode of life shall be restored. Until then I shall be an unwilling denizen of times past when our race must needs have foraged for survival in an unkind environment.

I am in a pitiable state. The normal mode of commerce with my species having been disrupted, I have been forced to have intercourse only with my own thoughts, and they are black indeed. Whither shall I wander in this un-digital world? In what manner can I profitably spend my time if not in front of a computer? What little talents I may possess can surely be of little use without the approved electronic medium to disseminate them among my brethren.

Once assured that my computer was not at fault, I turned my attentions to procuring a new cord for it, the old one having been mercilessly ripped apart by my thoughtlessly dangling the adapter box from the port side of the piano whilst composing. Heedlessly I have acted, but I shall not repeat my misdeed. A new power strip will relieve its successor of gravity's rapacious grip rather than twisting the plug into the shape that circumstance has forced it into, thereto.

Whenceforth I shall continue in weeks to come to protract my opinions in this space, newly returned to the century of the 21st. Entertaining the fondest hopes for the speedy remedy of this malady, I am, ever your blogger,

Michael

Friday, June 7, 2019

Miss Olga

Miss Olga retired last week.

Her name is Olga Radosavljevich, and she taught piano at the Cleveland Institute of Music, Preparatory Division, for 59 years. She didn't think students would be able to pronounce Radosavljevich, so she went by Miss Olga.

I had to look up how to spell it, but I had no problem pronouncing it. In fact, I just tried saying it five times fast. It's been awhile, and I only got through it four times before stumbling on the last one.

Miss Olga was the head of the Prep Department, which is where you went for lessons before being enrolled at the Conservatory. When I was 16, I took lessons in the Prep department, though Miss Olga was not my teacher. In fact, I think, due to my sloppy technical skills, she didn't want me as a student. A year later, at the end of year exam, she wrote "EXCELLENT!" in big letters across the top of the page. "When he first came it was obvious he lacked formal training but he has made an ENORMOUS improvement since" was her enthusiastic assessment. It remains one of my most glowing reviews.

I had studied with an elementary music teacher in our little town for several years. I owe her a lot, too, but it eventually became clear that, to borrow her own words, she was "not suitable for [my] purposes."

In the two years I had in the prep department I studied with a conservatory graduate student and made huge strides. Miss Olga was there to make sure of it.

Of course, Miss Olga's 59 year career only came to a peaceful and magnificent conclusion last week because my grandmother didn't kill her thirty years ago.

Miss Olga gave a master class in which several dozen of us played Czerny exercises for her one long Sunday afternoon. I was apparently the most advanced (I was probably a high school senior at this point) and was held for the end. The first students got a lot of instruction, and as the class dragged on past the four hour mark and the relieved parents left with their charges one by one as they finished taking their public lesson, only I and my family were left. Miss Olga looked at her watch wearily and said that maybe it was time to stop. My grandmother, according to my mother, looked like she wanted to kill Miss Olga.

We stopped grandma in time, and I got to play for her anyway. She was encouraging.

I have a recording of the 90 second etude I played on that occasion. I made the recording a few years ago one afternoon. I imagine it has improved a little since 1989, though I barely practiced it before I turned on the microphones!

Here's to you, Miss Olga. You have a lot of thankful students.

Czerny, Etude in Bb, op. 299 #13

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Friday, May 31, 2019

Organ Crawl


The following article is appearing in the Third Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh's newsletter, "The Spire" this weekend.

It may not seem like news that organists tend to be nerds, but what you may not be aware of is what associative nerds we are. The Pittsburgh chapter of the American Guild of Organists is 300 members strong and very active. Each month we gather to fellowship, eat, support each other, and of course gawk at various organs. This past month we had an “organ crawl” in which three of the guild’s chapters came together to spend the day in Greensburg traveling to six churches and hearing recitals on each of the organs. We rented a school bus to get to the venues, and there was much merriment on that score. Some of the members commented that they hadn’t been on a school bus in a very long time. I assured the bus driver that I didn’t have gum. At the end of the trip the driver complimented us on our good behavior! Organists have been known to get rowdy, you know.

The trip was very well thought out, with a large souvenir program, several fine organists to play for us, and a variety of programs at the varied places of worship which included a college chapel, and Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian churches. Two of the programs were short worship services, and it was at the last of the evening, at the Presbyterian church, that I will always remember the sound of all of those organists singing the hymns. It may have been helped by the acoustic, but organists can really sing!

The college chaplain used his short homily to be thankful for the role that music plays in worship and thank the organists. Although there are Guild chapters all over the country, I think ours is unique for size and activity, and I am thankful for this group that is unique to Pittsburgh.