Monday, December 30, 2013

New Year's Eve at the Virginia (part two)

Last time we got own and dirty with the first part of William Albright's "Grand Sonata in Rag" which was very grand, also very exuberant, wild, silly, and many other things.

It's time for a bit of a rest. Here is the relatively halcyon second movement, subtitled "Ragtime Turtledove." It's the one movement I managed to record in its entirely before Christmas. It is also the piece I played on the radio about 10 days ago here in Central Illinois. That was on a studio keyboard, however. This is my own recording made on the same Steinway I'll play on the concert tomorrow evening.

After the last post I think we deserve a bit of a rest so I'll let you listen without comment except to remind you that Mr. Albright certainly has a sense of humor and that all of those apparent "wrong" notes are correct as far as I can tell.

II. Ragtime Turtledove   by William Albright


questions for discussion:

--What are the Rockettes doing there at the end?!?
--Why the sudden key shift shortly before they make their grand entrance? The director of our Conservatory used to call this a "Manilow"--suddenly jerking things up a half step for no apparently good reason. I think Mr. Albright is having a bit of fun.
--What is your favorite dissonance? Be prepared to defend your answer.
--Have a happy New Year's Eve tomorrow.

On to part three!

Friday, December 27, 2013

New Year's Eve at the Virginia (part one)

Let me share with you this terrific piano piece I'm playing at the Virginia on New Year's Eve. It's called "Grand Sonata in Rag" by William Albright. Technically, it is a classical piano sonata. I say technically, because--well, here is how it beings:


That's not how Beethoven would begin a piano sonata, for sure. Sounds more like a saloon than a salon. And then, after a slight pause for suspense, out breaks:


Again, not the best behaved sonata in the world. And that is at the root of it. This is a wild, exuberant excursion into the music of ragtime, something that respectable people and religious societies of a hundred years ago thought was the music of sin and/or having too good a time. Music and social movements go together, and there are always people on the bottom rungs of the ladder that the others look down upon as inferiors. And they have their music. At one time, this was it.

But there is more going on here. The first movement is called "Scott Joplin's Victory" and thereby hangs a tale.

Scott Joplin was a man who valued art, and dignity. He wanted his music to stand for both. In an era when ragtime, and the African Americans who played it, were looked on as refuse, he wanted to show the world that his music was worthy of honor, and a good listen. One of the ways he went about that was to ask that his music be played slowly. Most of his published rags contain little boxes that warn the pianist against playing the music too fast because "it is NEVER right to play ragtime fast."

See a problem with the raucous opening of our sonata? But don't worry, Mr. Joplin will have his turn.

You see, a sonata is a bit like an argument. First one side gets a chance to speak, then the other. Eventually there is a chance for them both to develop their arguments, or talk at once, which is often the case both with the Sunday morning shows and the sonata, and then finally the dust clears and the two sides are heard presenting their arguments for the last time.

Joplin will get to speak, but first we have to establish the other guys. Those other guys weren't just critics, they were pianists. Ragtimers themselves. They like their ragtime with a little more kick. And fast. You really can't get a bunch of pianists together in a room and not expect some of them to try to play as fast and as loud as they can just to show off. Joplin be darned.

So this first part of our narrative is going to be fast and wildly exciting. After a short first section, the parts just tumble out, one after another. You heard just a bit of the second section as the last example faded out. I'll leave the rest of that to your imagination.

Then in comes a third idea, which reminds me of a bit from The Nutcracker. Those jarring chords are just the way the composer wrote them!


Then a chance to lose our balance by way of an odd time signature or two:


At this point, the phrases are just tripping over each other to get out, sprawling headlong into the ragtime rush, and it will take a bit of good old oompah-oompah in the bass just to restore order:


You'll notice that even here there is a bit of the bizarre. Those upper crunchy chords that jump out at you are just as the composer wrote them. Mr. Albright sticks those bone rattling harmonic jolts everywhere. He explained once to us that one of the things that drives his music is humor, and there seems to be plenty of it in supply here, making this at times a loving send-up of the genre. And with the headlong rushing tempo and measures with various beats lopped off the ends, the whole thing is getting a bit out of control. So Mr. Albright tries to calm things down the way a classical composer would calm things down, namely, with a little symmetry. It is time to return to the beginning, which is something a ragtime composer wouldn't do, but Beethoven would. Notice the end of that example I just played for you. Here it is again:


It doesn't really work, does it? Establishing a feeling of repose, I mean. Not when you've got an opening theme like that. But then, subito, in strides Mr. Joplin, the epitome of cool. Maybe our composer has him confused with a guy named Tex:


It isn't subtle, this change of tempo, and mood. It is as if the slow movement couldn't wait and began right in the middle of the fast one. It is pretty chic, though, and eventually, after a few episodes, culminates in a section titled "cakewalk in the sky:"


This is actually the first section that sounds like Joplin maybe, just maybe, could have written it. It is also the end of the section. In comes the same music we heard at the very beginning, and then, slowly, inevitably.....


Oh no! They're back! Those crazy New Yorkers with their New Yorkified ways! And the music is fast! and Loud! and people love it! Oh dear....

(by the way, I love that little gesture that near the end of the example (:32) that glues it to the next section. That little "tata tum tum." I've played a lot of Joplin and he seriously overuses that little rhythm as a way to get from section to section. It's a ragtime cliche that Mr. Albright cattily inserts here.)

Now there are two things still to check off our list if we want this to get certified as a sonata by the Sonata Association of America and one of them is there needs to be development. In other words we need to take at least one of the themes, namely that little rocket we heard right in example two, right up at the beginning of the sonata itself (after the slow introduction):

and develop the heck out of it, which basically means chop it up, slice it, dice it, play it in different keys, make it part of a horrific symphonic maelstrom:


Now see if you can find those bits of thematic development in the midst of the storm:


Ok, check. That is the hardest thing for people to listen for and the part they often find the least rewarding. But clever composers can be counted upon to do it anyway.

Now we heard for home.

I told you earlier that a sonata was like an argument with two sides vying to see how would win. I might as well tell you now that the contest is rigged. The first one to speak always wins. (don't be that way: when we watch a movie the good guy always beats the bad guy but we are still immersed in the drama the entire time as if it were really a question.) In a sonata the two sides are heard in order at the beginning, and again at the end, which you might think would give some weight to the second fella, but by then it is being done in the key and the mood of the first theme, so the amicable understanding they have come to is really all about the second accommodating the first. And we get a nice sense of well-roundedness and symmetrical civility.

But unlike a sonata a rag doesn't end up where it started. It leaves the home key and never comes back. Funny thing about the rules being different that way. This being a "Sonata" you'd expect that if you heard from Mr. Joplin again at all, he would have given up and played his music fast and loud and in the same key as the other guys. Sonata accommodation and all that.

But...surprise! Our second theme, Mr. Joplin's "cakewalk in the sky" comes back for a bow, no compromises at all in mood or tempo, except that it is quite loud for a few moments, making its grand, overstated entrance, and then, once it safely has the floor, it abruptly becomes sweet and lovely, and leaves us with the a smile at the end.


I've been a little busy this month, so I'll have to bring you a complete recording in January. For now if you want to hear the whole thing uncut, come to the Virginia Theater in Champaign, Illinois at 7pm on Dec 31st. And to think that this is only the first movement! I'll be back to blog about the rest next week.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

That was the Christmas when....

Merry Christmas morning to all of you!

I'm currently in a car on my way to the airport to visit relatives for a few days. The Christmas Eve Marathon at my church wrapped a little after midnight so I'm exhausted, running on about three or four hours of sleep. Probably. I'm guessing at my condition, actually, since I wrote this post a few days ago and had it posted automatically. At least robots are good for something.

And what did I get you this year? Why, it's a Scarlatti Sonata! K.513. Don't tell me you have that one already. If you do, you can trade it in for one of his other fine 554 sonatas. And sonata related accessories. Sounds like the perfect gifts for hard-core collectors with quite a bit of nearly everything.

But if you do trade it in for something else, you might miss the fortuity of this particular sonata for this particular occasion. Musicologist and Scarlatti specialist John Kirkpatrick thinks of these sonatas as "leaves from a diary" and suggests that the composer, who lived at the Spanish court, in the employ of the queen, and in the company of the royal family, may have left, embedded within the pieces, some of the moments of courtly life. The pomp, the celebrations, the festivities, the seasons of the year, and who knows what all else. It is, just as I mention in the last post, not a popular view with some musically inclined persons, and it is also really guesswork. Yet there is something in this particular sonata that has always made me want to associate it with Christmas, even though there is nothing in the score to suggest that this was what the composer intended.

The reason for it, I think, is that the piece begins in the manner of a pastorale, in a rocking, 12/8 rhythm, and the dotted gestures right at the beginning (play the first four notes a bit slower and you have the opening rhythm of "Silent Night" even if it is melodically upside down) suggest a whole slew of pieces that do overtly conjure up the rocking of the holy infant by his mother.

As the section progresses, things get more lively, and a celebration breaks out, which seems like the thing to do on Christmas morning. Perhaps that long first section is the transition from the mystery of Christmas Eve to the joy of Christmas morning. Then, as all Scarlatti sonatas do, the entire section repeats.

Structurally, Scarlatti's job is to get us away from the opening key and opening them into a new key and with new ideas, then repeat the whole process (literally, with a repeat sign), and then, in a second section, to take us back to where we started, in the originally key, but this time with both of the major musical ideas in that key. It is a musical round trip that makes up the stuff of most piano sonatas, and Mr. Scarlatti did it well over 500 times. But the odd thing here is that, while technically he holds to that overall frame, the tempo keeps increasing, and the music becomes every more boisterous. By the second section, all celebration breaks loose. In a scheme in which balance is the name of the game, this sonata sounds really asymmetrical.

In which case, it seems odd to repeat both portions of the sonata (the second of which is distinctly shorter than the first). Perhaps that was just a custom from which Scarlatti found it impossible to break away. Maybe it isn't so bad getting two chances to absorb all of the musical information. And to anticipate, the second time, how much fun is waiting for us when we get there.

Sonata in C, K.513 by Domenico Scarlatti

Monday, December 23, 2013

What does this Mean, then?

A couple of weeks ago I tipped my hand and posted what I'll be playing for Christmas Eve. If you haven't heard it, here it is. If you already have, thanks for listening, and here it is again. One of the difficulties that "classical" music has with the public is that requires a lot from the listener and contains a lot of unfamiliar musical "information." One way to deal with this is to listen to a piece several times so that you become familiar with it and find yourself enjoying it like a conversation with an old friend. So here it is (again):

Introduction and Variations on a Ancient Polish Carol by Alexander Guilmant

Another way to deal with all of that information is to divide and conquer. Knowing how the piece is structured makes it more understandable. In this case it is a series of variations. Those variations are on a tune that may be familiar to you, in which case, that will also help.

The first thing you will hear, though, is the blustery introduction, grand and dramatic, and opening in a minor key. Only a few seconds later it switches to major, and repeats what becomes the opening phrase of the carol. After tossing giving us several hints about what tune we are about to hear, things begin to simmer down, and just when you think things are about to get peaceful--he really sets the stage for a nice tranquil presentation of the tune (at 1:02)---

It's nice and loud! Which is something I mentioned last time and something I'm going to elaborate on today.

Meanwhile, you hear the tune, all 35 seconds of it, in full organ. Then, after a conclusive held chord and a short pause comes the first variation (at 1:37) in which the tune is in the bass, and descending notes are in the treble. After this section comes a soft meditative one (at 2:15) in which the harmonies slither a bit and get interesting. Then, the final variation (3:04), which is full of running notes and musical jubilation. And that's pretty much it except for the big ending.

If you're counting, that means we only had three variations, which shouldn't tax anyone's patience very much. The whole piece is under four minutes long.

That describes the blueprint of the piece, but it doesn't tell us what the piece is about. Now right away we've wandered into one of those huge debates in which there are two passionate sides convinced the other hasn't got a clue. To exaggerate, there are some who see stories in every piece of music, and others who believe music means nothing at all beyond a collection of satisfying notes. In a nutshell, I've always believed that suggesting the latter is as much as to say the sole reason for writing is to pay attention to grammar and perhaps things like rhyme, assonance, meter, and so on, but no more. And yet, in writing, words always point to something beyond themselves, though at the same time good writing does put words together in a way that causes a harmonious blend of the constituent parts themselves. That just isn't the whole enchilada.

Maybe I'm playing into the notes-alone argument here, but it seems as if the easiest time to search for what a composer may have had in mind besides the marks on the page is when he does something unorthodox. And what could be more unorthodox than to introduce the tune "Infant Holy, Infant Lowly," a lullaby, fortissimo?

In fact, one performance of this piece, one I heard on Youtube when I was looking for something to play by Mr. Guilmant, left out this rather startling bit of dynamic usage. The performer  decided to tone down the composer's dynamics and registrations, and to do things much more quietly. I am going to suppose he may have done this because

1) he thought the composer had lost his mind; or
2) he decided that the entire reason for the strangely loud dynamic was that the composer was planning to play the piece at the conclusion of a church service, when the church would be very noisy with the sound of people leaving, and talking loudly to each other, and decided he needed to bellow in order to be heard above the din. Since this was for a recording in a "concert" situation, this performer did not need to resort to such shouting.

This last was indeed the first thing that struck me as a possibility, but I have wondered since whether there might be more than mere practicality in mind. It seems to me that clever composers often manage to do things both for practical reasons and for reasons of effect, or meaning, and to marry the immediate need with a larger plan.

After all, it isn't just the end of the service that is going on, here. It's midnight on Christmas Eve--or maybe it's 1 am (if it was a midnight mass). In any case, Christmas has truly arrived, and what is called for isn't just a cozy snow season and baby in a manger, but a shout--an announcement that HE IS HERE! and that Advent has been fulfilled and the waiting is over! Merry Christmas, everybody!

(which is a great feeling if you've been waiting for it. But we don't like to do that. A famous experiment wherein children were given one marshmallow which they could eat now or were promised two more if they could wait until the adult left the room for a few minutes and came back, showed who few of us like to wait, no matter the reward. Years later, it was found that the ones who could wait also had much higher SAT scores. Surprise!)

In that context it makes sense. If you are sensitive to the rhythms of the church year, and you understand, in our no-waiting, one marshmallow society, that we've been building up to this moment for a month, not to collapse from exhaustion when it is over, but to celebrate its arrival, then you will want to shout the glad tidings along with the organist.

Until then, there are shepherds on a hillside, puzzled, asking themselves, with wonderful King Jamesian superfluity, "What does this mean, then?" And confused astrologers, seeking a point on a map by follow a hot ball of gas to God-knows where. And a lot of other people just going about their business, not knowing, or caring. But then....

There we are, in its midst. And if that isn't worth a shout, what is?

Even above the noisy throng.

Friday, December 20, 2013


Last week I was visited by some microscopic bugs. They came in the night and were already holding forth by the time last Friday's blog posted (you can set them for future publication). This caused a bit of a pause in my activities.

...Which are quite numerous this time of year as you might imagine. Nevertheless, my body did what it has done on several occasions in recent years when illness is involved. It said, in effect, you're worn out. You need a rest. Take a pause from all that stress and action. I insist.

That's pretty much the only way I'll stop sometimes. And it knows that. It might have had something to do with why I got sick in the first place. And so the Fall semester, that long out of control tobbagan ride, came to a crashing halt.

While I was convalescing I was trying to relax, not to worry about all the concerts and deadlines coming up. That has a funny way of stressing a person, particularly when there is no way to prepare for them. Even thinking about them was out of bounds to my nervous system. Just be. Make a break. Start over on the other side, mentally.

That didn't last very long. Every organization I work for has at least one Major Holiday Related Production. This year the Children's Chorus had five (I didn't have to play for all of them: they replaced me with a lousy 100-piece orchestra one of the times. Talk about no job security! I would grouse, amused. And I would be told something saccharinely sweet about it taking 100 people to replace me). Our church always has two, one for the choir to do the annual musical Sunday, and another for the Great Big Holiday Extravaganza Church Play with Music. That was last Sunday.

Every time I get sick I count the days before the weekend which is generally when I have my most essential bouts of activity. This time it was in the wee hour of Friday. That didn't leave a lot of time before the GBHECP with M. And one definitely can't miss that. For one thing, as with most (or all) of my jobs, I have no backup. The only person in the building who could have played the piano was thirty feet away corralling the kids (which includes making exaggerated motions and singing loudly when it is time to come in so that they will eventually join in before it is time to stop singing. I refer to the younger set only).

Fortunately this turned out to be one of those 24-hour deals that leave exhaustion in their wake for about a week. Which allowed me to crawl to the piano on Sunday and do what needed to be done. I called in dizzy for the first half of the three hour choir rehearsal that evening, but otherwise made it through the weekend intact, which gave me a few more days to get my groove back for the next push, more weekend services, a few rehearsals, and Christmas Eve.

Into the mix is a New Year's Eve concert I'm just now getting to practice for and which you'll hear about next Friday after I'm blogged out about Christmas. It's going to be a lot of fun. But first, a pause in the proceedings to relax and announce a pause in the proceedings. Even during a season such as this it is essential for a musician to be able to stop for a moment. Only a moment, perhaps. And then, mostly in the mind. But that is where it is most important.

In micro, this is also an important skill for pianists. When you do not need to exert pressure, you don't. When your fingers do not need to be extended, they relax. When you are between gestures, you make a break between them. Otherwise you stress your muscles and your playing sounds like a run-on sentence.

My teacher in college told me, as we were about to study a major piano concerto, that he was going to show me how to make these mental breaks. I think he forgot about his promise later on, but I learned anyhow. Or the lessons were so integrated I didn't notice. In any case, I figured it out. You can play long stretches of complex passage work with ease, or at least without getting hand cramps, if, and only if, you can find ways to relax in the midst of all that frenetic activity. In micro, and in macro.

So consider this a little pause from the rush of life, as chronicled in this blog, as well as in your own. I'll be back at it on Monday, pondering a selection for Christmas Eve, celebrating Christmas in pianosong on Wednesday (the blog will post automatically while we are flying over Missouri on our way to visit relatives) and back here on Friday to discuss my activities on New Year's Eve. I wish you a Merry, and illness-free, rest of your holiday season.

Friday, December 13, 2013


This has nothing whatsoever with organ playing, being a church organist, being a musician, anything having to do with the piano or any other vaguely musical device. Well, there is a first time for everything.

I'm not the sort of person who looks forward to very many holiday traditions. A lot of traditions happen because people are just too busy to do anything new and fall back on what they did last year because it is easier. A good deal of what we do at our church falls into this category. We even sing the same three Christmas carols on Christmas Eve every year. I try to play something different on the organ or the piano every year; change things up a bit. Not to mention that there are tons to the 85th power of music--even good music--for Christmas.

But here's one thing that I do enjoy every year. Not the Christmas carol parodies, or the Night Before Christmas parodies, or all the radio stations playing Sleigh Ride 45 times a day for a month and a half. It's something our Bible study group does the last week of the semester. We go to the local Toys (reverse R) Us and boy toys for kids who might not get any this year because their families are on hard times.

It's kind of fun. We mill around the star, a half dozen youngish adults, having fun playing with the toys, making sarcastic comments about some of the latest and greatest, glad to see the classics are still around, trying to choose the right toy for purchase this year. It's funny how you end up trying to get the perfect toy for someone you will never meet.

One year it was a soccer ball. I think I got a stuffed bear another year. I took a pass on the remote control shark that floats through the air and scare people who come around the corner. That was way out of my budget. But it was so cool!

This year I went with a dinosaur. Not just any dinosaur, mind you. This one was over two feet tall! With a very pink tongue! And scary all the same, even if he had just swallowed a vat of Pepto Bismol.

I vowed I would get a smart gift, like a puzzle or a chess set, the next time. For an older, perhaps brainy, child. But in the meantime I got to sneak up on people and roar at them. Yeah, I know. Very dignified. Funny, I don't actually remember being that enchanted with dinosaurs when I was four. Maybe I'm making up for it.

There were seven of us on this little adventure and we got quite a diversity of toys, as you can see below. I, as the photographer, am not pictured. But I let my dinosaur stand in for me. He's third from the right. I know he doesn't look very scary in the picture, but just you be traveling down some dark alley late at night and find him out looking for a midnight snack!

Of course, we had to part with our gifts as soon as we paid for them. They go in a large bin at the front of the store. My dinosaur hadn't even gotten a name yet. I guess I'll leave that to the recipient. Then I got a sad lesson about dignity. It doesn't last long. There was my mighty, scary dinosaur, robbed of his, the mighty T-Rex, king of exactly nothing, stuffed into a plastic bag, laying on his side, only the feet sticking out!

Sooner or later it happens to all of us. I hope my dinosaur had a sense of humor about it.

Then we went next store to the Barnes and Noble, looked around a bit, ordered drinks at the in-store Starbucks, where I had my annual Peppermint Mocha, the only thing I order at Starbucks all year, usually. And we hung around, in conversation until closing time, when they basically kicked us out! That's also part of the tradition.

We've been at this for eight or nine years now. In a couple of years we'll move away. But it's a nice holiday tradition while it lasts.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Page Turn

If you've been reading this blog you know I sometimes write about some rather strange topics. Starting a series on what makes a good accompanist, I spent two entries on giving pitches to choirs (what's to know? you simply play the starting note for each part one part at a time and then they sing. Nothing to it. Well...)

Soon I'll get around to some of the most important issues for accompanists, the ones that happen while you are actually playing! First, however, another bit of minutiae--important minutiae though it is, involving the turning of pages.

Actually, I should mention this is a curiously popular topic around here. I have a humorous yet informative article over on on the art of the page turn for people who are not pianists, or who are helping other pianists, and it is one of the most popular pages on the site. It's recently been mentioned on and in the online version of the British newspaper The Guardian.

I have a policy of rehearsing as hard as I perform, and have for years been making a practice of trying to maximize the page turn whenever I have to do it myself while playing. The fact is, that much of the time, if not the vast majority of the time, accompanists wind up doing most of their own page turning. That is certainly going to be true during rehearsals. It is usually true during performances as well, and I like to be prepared for any emergency caused by anything like an unwarranted amount of zeal when turning the page to a gust of wind or a poor excuse for a music rack. I also try every way possible to not have to leave out notes during a page turn, particularly the important ones. All this keeps me continually on my toes during rehearsals.

Which might be the only reason I managed to get through what happened to me on Saturday. I don't know how it started, but the next thing I knew the music was tottering off the stand, and into the piano. Now, I have a patented method for turning a page wherein my right hand leaves the keyboard and suddenly shoots up to the page like a frog catching flies with its tongue and I whip the page to the left in one snapping motion-- just like most accompanists. I then zip back down to the keyboard in time to play the next chord with my right hand. Got that? The sequence is play--whoosh! (page turn)--back to the keyboard, play the chord. Then I shoot my hand back up to the music again, which has not been able to keep up with my sudden moves, and has taken the time while I was playing the next chord to saunter leisurely across to its resting place. Only if the music is new, as it often is, what has happened is that the music has ricocheted--softly, we hope--back, and is thinking about either flipping right back to where it was, or else inconveniently coming to rest at some funny angle so I can't read the music. In any case, the book just doesn't want to stay open. So a beat or two later my hand shoots back up to the music and I make whatever adjustment is necessary. Occasionally I have to do it a couple of times. This is all predicated on the fact that I can't spend two beats waiting around for the page I've set in motion to actually arrive where I've sent it. I have music to play. Therefore my patented two-step, or three or four step, ninja moves.

Some of these octavos are rather thick, and heavy, which might explain the music's behavior. It apparently developed some excess momentum and continued into the piano, still upright, and then, a moment later, slid down out of the piano to rest on my legs.

The reason I am having trouble recalling exactly what the music was busy doing in those moments is because I was using all of my available bandwidth at that point imagining various disaster scenarios and how to deal with them. Someone who witnessed the episode remarked how calm I appeared during the whole thing and I explained that I have learned that in such situations one has no time at all to panic; everything you have must be concentrated on how to fix the situation you are in.

Which is how, within a second of the music's falling off the piano, I had realized that up ahead in the music there was a place where the singers answered the piano motive and that all I was doing at that point was playing an octave D in the left hand for an entire four beat measure. If I could make it that far I would have my right hand free to grab the music and put it back up on the rack. In the meantime it was imperative that I not breathe too heavily or make any sudden moves. That music needed to stay where it was, balanced precariously on my legs.

At that point I needed to play the next 8 bars or so from memory. This is a situation in which you do not ask yourself whether you happen to have the music memorized; you simply do it. I had been rehearsing the music with the choir for several weeks and can report back reasonable success. I'm not sure whether I missed any notes during the whole incident!

After a great span of time had passed--probably upwards of 7 seconds--the coming of the great octave D arrived and I was able to put the music back up on the rack with my right hand, then to notice, annoyed, that it was on the wrong page, and then, somehow, to effect two page turns over the next three measures in order to get the music back to where it should have been in the first place.

For full effect I should probably mention that the conductor likes her tempi crispy and that the piano part was not especially easy, particularly at high speed. I should also confess that some of the notes in the section that followed were not technically approved by the composer's union because, determined to stay focused though I was, having had my accompanying life flash before me did nonetheless make it hard not to mentally stammer a little. I paraphrased a few things which would not have assaulted the ears of the populace, but were not necessarily what was written before me. Nevertheless, we finished the piece, I heaved a mental sigh, and we went on to a piece that was longer and harder, and I took extra care on the page turns.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Spatula Monday

I call them "spatula mondays" because you have to pry me out of bed in the morning with a spatula.

The reason for that is that I've just had a pretty full weekend. I play four church services a weekend usually, although this weekend we only had three. However, the Central Illinois Children's Chorus had their annual Winter concert on Saturday afternoon, between my impromptu recording session and lesson and the Saturday evening service; then the church choir had their music Sunday the next morning. I enjoyed both events; my energy started to flag toward the end of the choir service and I had to press on with internal motivational speeches, but everything turned out ok. I also had an incident at the Children's Chorus concert that took twenty years off my life that I'll share with you on Wednesday. I got a short nap on Sunday afternoon before the three hour choir rehearsal in the evening.

When you add all of the hours together it probably still doesn't come out to an official 40 hour work week so anyone who doesn't do this for a living might have a hard time wondering how, say after a concert of only an hour and half of activity a person could be so drained. But you need to experience it. To be so "on" the entire time, responsive to the choir and the conductor and the moment and with all of those notes to play and to listen for--it isn't like most activities. It burns up physical energy and nervous energy at a much faster rate. Having two full concerts with different programs within 24 hours and a long rehearsal afterward makes this a rougher weekend than usual, nervous-energy-wise.

So today, while I'm in recovery, we'll have a short blog entry, with a bit of music attached to make it worth your while. Here is something that you can also find on the homepage of, where I've provided a program of holiday music this week with additional programs to follow the next two weeks. The music was recorded over the last three Christmas seasons.

Liszt: The Shepherds at the Manger

I anticipate another "spatula Monday" next week after the all-church megamusicaldramaproduction, which is not the official name for it, but you get the idea. It's some time of year, ain't it?

See you Wednesday.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Planning Ahead

The piece I'm about to play for you was recorded in July. It is a short set of variations on a Polish carol known to many of us as "Infant Holy, Infant Lowly." I'm going to play it at church this year on Christmas Eve:


I've found it not only expedient but completely necessary to work far in advance when preparing for the Christmas season. As it is I'm about three weeks from having the real life nightmare of walking out on stage to play a concert and realizing you haven't managed to practice for it. Have you ever had that one?

One disaster scenario at a time, however. This year I got Christmas Eve settled early. It was a morning in July and I decided to see what else Alexander Guilmant had written that I might want to play, since I had enjoyed his Easter offertory so much. I stumbled across this piece and decided to play it for Christmas. If you were wondering when I choose music for major church holidays that answer is always. Whenever I find it, even a year ahead of time. And in this case I promptly found it in print at, took it to church, practiced it for a couple of days and made this recording, figuring two things would happen:

1) I wouldn't have to make time to record it in the middle of the Christmas Crush, and
2) When I got around to practicing it again, perhaps just a few days before the service, I would find that it slid back under my fingers pretty quickly, since I had learned it well enough to record the first time. Also it only took a couple of days so I know just how hard it is--or isn't.

So if you are a church organist I heartily advise planning as far ahead as you can. Even in a position that requires a good deal of preparation for each week's service, just managing to do slightly more than is required for each week will eventually pay off in all sorts of ways, one of which enabled me to share this music with you tonight!

Now as to the music itself--you might have noticed something odd about the composer's approach to the tune, particularly if you know the title of the tune and the words. The fortissimo dynamics are the composer's own. But let me explain in the words I'm planning for the church bulletin that evening (they are already written. You can hate me now. I'm too tired right now to care! :)

       Alexander Guilmant's "Variations" on the carol we know as "Infant Holy, Infant Lowly" begins with a grand introduction, and then something odd: the tune of this Polish lullaby enters very loudly.  Guilmant probably did this for practical reasons. The piece is marked "Sortie," the French word for Postlude (it literally means "exit") and, assuming members of Mr. Guilmant's church made the same cacophonous exit as most congregations, the theme probably needed to be loud if he wanted it to be heard. The tactic is unnecessary tonight and yet I'll hold to the composer's markings for more theological reasons: the theme is a bold proclamation of the arrival of "God with us." Gradually the variations grow softer (perhaps by this time the more noisy congregants had left!) and at the heart of the piece there is at last a moment for soft strings you might associate with the unfolding of a mystery and the birth of a child. Then it erupts in a jubilant conclusion.

The reason for the "tactic" being unnecessary is that I will not be playing the piece for a postlude. And people will not be talking over it. It does make for an interesting meditation on the miraculous things going on in the world that nobody is paying attention to--then and now. It's a theme I turn over in my mind every now and then, and have for quite a while. In my teens I played a very unusual Christmas offertory of my own extraction on "O Little Town of Bethlehem" which explored the noisy environs of a more realistic Bethlehem than the one in our cozy Christmastime imaginations.

If you can manage to avoid distractions for a few minutes this time of year perhaps this piece, or others like it, will speak to you. If not, maybe it will get your attention anyway! Just don't turn up the speakers TOO much!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Attention to Detail

I just finished, not five minutes ago, two pieces for this week's opening voluntary and offertory. I am not a fast composer, (a trait I seem to share with several of history's proficient improvisers, ironically--we come in two speeds: instant composition, and slow and laborious!) so this is a minor miracle. Seven pages in three days. I could have made both pieces up on the spot but there would be little left afterward to share with anyone. There should be recordings up on in a few days.

You would think that under those conditions--having just been informed by the choir director on Monday that I would be playing both an opening voluntary and an offertory after all (most years on "choir Sunday" the choir fills all the musical slots available and I, in a sense, get a week off from solo selections, just as the pastor gets a week off from giving a sermon), you would think that there wouldn't be enough time to take care of all of the niceties of full-bore composition. Just do enough to get by. And you would be right: there aren't any dynamic marks or tempo indications in the scores I just printed out; since I am playing them myself, this is unnecessary. It had occurred to me that I might have to just sketch parts of the pieces and fill in the missing portions in the moment. My concentration will be entirely on the choir on Sunday so I'm not taking any chances as far as my own role is concerned; therefore I'd like to minimize anything that requires inspiration for this particular week, and yet, there are some things I could have safely left to the moment even under these circumstances. In other situations I could have just left the entire piece un-composed.

And yet somehow I managed to finish; and on Wednesday morning, no less. Now I will about a day to learn what I've written if I want to record them on time. But before the composer handed off to the performer I took care of a couple of details with a touch of a few buttons. Which is the point of all of this: not to brag about speed, but to discuss a few important details with any music publishers that might be listening.

Before I printed the offertory I observed that the piece had very slightly bled over onto a fifth page, which now consisted of only a few measures. I only have room for four pages on my music rack. Since I was using Finale, a popular music writing program, I went to the "page layout" menu and shrunk the staves down to 95%. This barely changed the size of the staves overall, and yet the entire piece now fits on four pages so I won't have to figure out when to put up the fifth page while I am playing. Since I printed all four pages single sided they will all be staring at me when I being to play. There will be no page turns. Walla.

While I was making that change I was reminded of all the church music publishers who make life hard by not paying attention to issues involving page turning. How often do you see an anthem on which, one or two measures after a page turn, there is a repeat sign, wherein you have to turn the page back to the opposing repeat, which in some cases is only a measure or two before the end of its own page! So you or your page turner turn the page forward; two seconds later you have to go back two pages, and a second or so later you have to turn forward again. Ridiculous. And it is not hard to avoid these situations: you simply fit the music, which I can do myself simply with operations like the one I've described above.

It reminded me of all of those Youtube videos where you see the organists spend 45 seconds running to the other end of the church between hitting the record button and starting to play. I'll bet it's not hard to edit those portions out with some free software and a touch of a button. Before I had a blog I thought all of those typos were caused because you couldn't go back and edit what you'd written after you posted it. Not true, it turns out.

Which is handy, because when you are in a hurry you tend to make all sorts of mistakes you might not otherwise. I do it myself. And if I happen across an entry later with a spelling mistake or a typo I fix it. Not hard to do, either. Takes all of a few seconds.

A while ago I came to the realization that publishers of choral music purposely put piano interludes on the page turns because they think that choir members can't handle singing and turning pages at the same time, even though they've got two hands free while the pianist doesn't. Since the pianist is generally the most highly trained musician involved they get the joy of figuring out how to plan such a turn while they are playing with both hands and cannot very well leave out one of them while they are the one making a musical noise at the time of the page turn. There will be a forthcoming blog on this curious art!

But every once in a while, I will find a piece in which the page turns have been planned carefully, put in places where the measure before the turn is easy to play with one hand alone and not in the middle of the most complicated measure of the entire piece! And to those publishers I would like to say a great big thank you. Thank you for paying attention to those details and for making my life easier.

And for the rest of you, you know what is on my Christmas list this year. Peace on earth, of course, and something that is, I'm afraid, equally hard to come by. Paying attention.

You have my gratitude in advance.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Silent Note

It looks like I won't have to write a sequel to "Silent Night" this year after all. That would have been a pretty tall order, considering how popular that carol is and how the sequel would be bound to disappoint.

You're familiar with the story of its nativity, right? I don't know how historically accurate it is, but the legend begins with the breakdown of the church organ, right on Christmas Eve. Suddenly the priest and the organist are out of a way to lead the music for a very important service, and they sit down and bang out "Silent Night," to be played on the guitar. It's a hit. The priest writes the words, the organist writes the music, and a Christmas Miracle happens.

About a decade ago at another church of mine the organ decided to manifest a small problem the day before Christmas Eve. I had also planned quite a bit of organ music for this special service. The trouble was that one of the notes wouldn't stop speaking when you drew any of several stops. It's known as a "blown primary" and it's not particularly good news. However, we got somebody to service it on Christmas Eve in the afternoon, and a few hours later we had our service!

This year's trouble also had something to do with the primary, but it was about a note that would not turn on. A "G" above middle C on the upper manual wouldn't sound on most of the stops. It was kind of inconvenient. I use that note a lot and it is hard to work around it when it affects most of the stops instead of just one or two.

At first it was inconsistently troublesome, and I put off calling our organ technicians because they are going to tune it this week anyhow (regular semi-annual tuning) but at last one afternoon the usual trick for getting the note to turn back on again, wherein you pull out stops that WILL play the note and tease the note back to life somehow, didn't work anymore. I gave up and called our guy and he said he'd come the next morning.

Of course, the note worked that morning. You were expecting that, right? And I managed to make the recording you are about to hear. It uses the note many, many times, including for that little repetition on the words "news! news!" about ten seconds in, which, although the piece is 12 years old now, makes that part seem like an inside joke. I'll play the piece for you, but first, here is what one of the passages sounds like with that note missing (it obliged me the day before):


You've probably figured out that the piece is based on the melody "Good Christian Men, Rejoice." Also that the organ sounds like it is being constantly censored when probably the most important single note in the piece goes missing. By the way, I have no idea whose digital watch that is the background. People leave them around our church and they go off at various times of day.

Now of course the technician tried several things when I explained the problem, and thought perhaps he'd fixed it, which was hard to know since it sometimes worked and was currently fine. And then the minute he left--well, you know what happened. The first G I tried to play sounded like this:

So I called him and got him to turn his car around and come back. He fiddled with it some more, and now we are hopeful that it won't cut out on me in the middle of the service on Sunday. If it does, he says he plays at the church down the road and will come look at it again between services. That's dedication.

It's too early to rest easy, I suppose. We have all of Advent stretched out ahead of us to worry about. But it looks as though things are going to be fine with the organ, and if somehow they aren't, we'll just make it happen somehow. Besides, I know a guitar player....

Listen to "Invitation" by Marteau

Friday, November 29, 2013

Wake Up!

It's time for Advent again, that not very warm and fuzzy time that leads up to Christmas. A year ago, during the first Friday installment of this blog, I pointed out that the first week of Advent in the Revised Common Lectionary, which is a prescribed set of scripture readings for each week of the year, followed by all Catholics, and many Protestant, churches, contains some pretty dark, apocalyptic readings. And I played for you a not very warm and fuzzy rendering of an ancient Advent hymn by non other than Johann Sebastian Bach. In that version, the tune booms out in the pedals like a peal of doom while the counterpoint swirls on top. This year for the first week in Advent I'm playing two other versions of the same Advent hymn by different composers, a dancelike setting from the late Renaissance by Hieronymus Praetorius, and a more regal setting by Johann Pachelbel. (you can always hear what I'm playing in church that week by visiting the Godmusic page at

Meanwhile, I thought maybe I should make all that gloom and doom up to you by playing something that I will not be playing in church this Advent season, but of which I happened to make a recording earlier this year. It's based on the very same scriptural attitude of being vigilant because you never now when the end will come, but the music is much friendlier. It is commonly translated as "Sleepers, awake! A voice is calling" and it is one of Bach's best known tunes. (I prefer a closer translation, "Wake up! A voice calls out to us!") Bach himself seems to have liked it particularly, because it was originally part of one of his church cantatas, sort of a weekly sermon for choir and orchestra, and he later arranged it for organ solo.

As usual for a sort of "chorale prelude" the faster notes are Bach's, written to harmonize with the hymn tune, or rather to babble alongside it delightfully. The hymn tune itself doesn't come in for about 45 seconds, in the reed stop. One year at church the low Eb trumpet pipe, which is the first note of the melody, decided to stop working on Sunday morning, and I had to substitute the krummhorn stop instead, which is a nice reed, but too polite to wake everybody up for an apocalypse. However, I prefer the 8 foot covered flute stop which happens to be on the same manual as the trumpet (which means you can't have both!) so you'll just have to stay vigilant on your own. Have some strong coffee or something.

listen to Wachet auf  by J. S. Bach

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Going for it

Theoretically speaking, on this blog I usually give you something to listen to on Mondays, and spend Wednesday talking shop about making music. Fridays then get to be about church and/or organ music, Theoretically I also break those rules every once in a while. However, this post gets to lie at the intersection of Monday and Friday, since I have a recording for you, it happens to be organ music for church, AND I want to talk about music making issues. So if you're having a busy week you can get all three installments in one!

It all started, as the best kinds of accidents do, with a change of plans. This past Saturday afternoon I went over to church, set up the recording equipment, and began to record a beautiful little piano piece by Liszt for Christmas. It's very quiet and tender, and so naturally about 3/4 of the way through the first take, when the music was really starting to fade away, some [insert unflattering name for fellow human being here] across the street started his full-bore riding mower to take care of his leaves in his little 5 x 8 1/2 yard. I went outside to see what was making all that noise and from the catatonically slow speed he was driving it was clear it would take him at least an hour to do his little yard.

That's not, unfortunately, rare around here. My neighbor across the street also mows his postage stamp-sized yard with a deluxe riding mower, only he rips around like he's in the Indianapolis 500 which means it only takes him five minutes (which is good because I have to close my windows so my ears don't bleed from the sound; he wears huge noise-cancelling headphones, I've noticed--with tall radio antennae. I assume there is a blinking light on top for the airplanes).

While I waited for this fellow to finish riding around in the below freezing temperature, I needed to do something else. And I decided that that something else would be to record a piece I'm playing for Sunday, which happens to be the first Sunday of Advent. Advent, mind you, not Christmas. If it was Christmas I would be preempting the day before Thanksgiving on this blog to play Christmas music which is something I will leave for merchants and other people who Absolutely Cannot Wait to Buy and Sell Stuff. Advent is the period leading up to Christmas and it actually starts in four days, so I'm not getting ahead of myself much. Besides, any half-decent church organist has been playing Advent music for at least a week, maybe two or three, to get ready. If you work with choral organizations you've probably been playing it for months (Christmas music, in that case).

Whatever the strange combination of peevishness, nervous energy, and boldness in my system at that point, I just decided to flip on the microphone and go for it. Besides finding out that I could still make a decent recording even though the microphones were on the wrong end of the church (and thus really close to the pipe room), here's what I learned:

I had been previously playing Mr. Praetorius straight: that is, only the notes I saw on the page. A youtube video I heard a few days early had some ornamentation, particularly on the first notes when little is going on. It always seems to take a few measures for a late Renaissance organ piece to get going and I thought the ornamentation really helped. But I didn't stop there. As if I'd just been given permission (which can be dangerous if you improvise all the time) I started throwing what I hoped were stylistically appropriate ornaments all over the place. That included plenty of "notes inegales" which is the Renaissance equivalent of swung eight notes, and plenty of anticipations, trills, and mordents. I tired to let those ornaments grow on their own, that is, not to worry so much about whether I was getting to the next downbeat on time. Because:

There was a time when people didn't have timepieces in their pockets and on their wrists and referred to them constantly. I suspect that a bit more rhythmic freedom could have been on the musical front as well. My playing of early music seems to have gotten very metronomic and that lack of freedom was bugging me. Besides, I made a discovery in the middle of the recording. Which was, that if you take a measure or so to be very free, almost cadenza-like, you can snap back into strict tempo very easily by employing notes inegales. The hypnotic strength of the dance rhythm is enough to make up for any freedom of tempo employed previously. Not having such an overpowering awareness of the clock and the next metric deadline is pretty liberating. And I didn't find the results to be lacking in precision, either.

As for the ornaments, I recall thinking during the recording that maybe I was being excessive. But, I thought, there are a lot of complaints from contemporaries, mostly priests, it seems, that the musicians were being entirely too fancy with the music--breaking the hymn tunes up, and making everything confusing. Now it could perhaps be that that was entirely the fault of the non-musicians, the ones who, to borrow from a completely different era on a different continent, wouldn't even be able to recognize Yankee Doodle if it had some sort of accompaniment with it. On the other hand, is it possible that these critics had a point? Maybe an authentically creative performance of the music of earlier eras would offend our ears as well as theirs. We seem to be pretty stringy with our ornamentation these days, and I have a suspicion that's because most performers aren't very capable of doing any. The once you are about to hear were all improvised. I probably have a lot to learn about how and when, but I am also not going to assume that the method of any one composer of the time should be given total authority. Folks tended to violently disagree with each other back then, too. Still, it will be interesting to learn more about the time and the practice of performance in whatever way I can in the years to come. It is fascinating what you can learn from people trained in areas in which you are not, even, it seems, from videos on the internet.

Veni, Redemptor Gentium by Hieronymus Praetorius

(Come, Savior of the Gentiles, verse 1)

Monday, November 25, 2013

pictures from the trumpet recital

On Sunday, November 17th, Jeremy McBain and I gave a recital of music for the trumpet and organ. That's Jeremy on the left. I'm below talking on the microphone. We were joined for one number by cellist Ka-wai Yu, below. The program included trumpet sonatas by Baldassare and Viviani, and a piece by living composer David Sampson titled "The Mysteries Remain." Also on the program were organ solos by J. C. Kellner, Pietro Yon, and Theodore Dubois.

Several tornadoes came through central Illinois that afternoon just two hours before the concert. The warnings ended in time for the concert, and the show went on. I've had a concert postponed because of a typhoon before, but not (yet) a tornado. There were also power outages throughout the region, which had me a little worried about how I was going to be able to play the organ! ("Could I have a volunteer from the audience to come up and pump the bellows, please...") I envy those guys to my left who use only human power to play their instruments. 

But the concert went well and we had fun playing it. Thanks to the staff of Faith UMC for giving us the space, to Ka-Wai Yu for playing the cello and turning pages for me, to my wife Kristen for helping with the publicity and Jeremy's wife for printing the program, and to Jeremy for being such a pleasure to work with!

Friday, November 22, 2013


Thanksgiving isn't actually a church holiday. And none of the pastors at churches I've served in the last twenty years want to recognize it. But it seems to me to be the one national American holiday that can safely make the cut. Principally because the object of thanksgiving is to thank God for the harvest. In the other American holidays the object is America. God may bless America, but the object is America, and we are being gracious enough to allow God to bless it along with the rest of us. In fact, God had better bless America and if he doesn't like it God can get lost. That's how some of my fellow citizens seem to feel about the matter if you come right down to it.

But at Thanksgiving the object is to thank God, which seems like a safe theme for a church service. Some churches have special services for the holiday. We don't at Faith UMC, so we have to cram it in, usually either the week before Christ the King Sunday, or, as is the case this year, the same week. But then, our bishop kind of got things rolling by coming to our church on November 3rd, which meant (for various reasons) that we didn't have our usual All Saints Day service until a week later, and for some other reasons we had to have our churchwide Thanksgiving dinner earlier than usual--on the same day as the All Saints Day service. The next day was Veteran's Day and it snowed so much it looked like Christmas. I wondered whether we might want to do Easter while we were at it. Get all of the holidays out of the way at once. (By the way, I'd like to send a shout out to all my Jewish friends playing with their new dreidels at Thanksgiving dinner for the first and only time until 79,811 A.D.!)

There are lots of nice thanksgiving hymns, some of which are personal favorites of the choir director, who is the one trying to get it smuggled into the service to start with. But thanksgiving also models such a pleasant attitude that it seems like it ought to be noticed, and practiced, whenever possible. I say pleasant because when you are being truly grateful for something you generally feel better about life than you do when you are not. Like innumerable other things in life, gratitude is a skill which can be practiced, and the better your skill level the higher your general level of happiness. Mind if I practice on you a bit?

I'm thankful for the usual suspects, of course, my generous family, my interesting friends, my engaging wife. After I draft this blog some of us are going out for pizza to a new place. Exploration is always a fun thing for me, as is pizza. My wife is overcoming her prejudice against pizza to partake with us. Hers will probably have pineapple on it, but what can you do?

Our friends make Tuesday night bible studies fun. Bible studies are infinitely better when there are people who have interesting things to say about things and you don't have to really on really broad and creaky study guide questions. Our conversations are what make the evenings worth the time.

My wife is also a great conversationalist, and a good reading partner. We have probably read at least 2000 pages of great and not-so-great literature during our over 15 years together.

I'm thankful to have a nice warm church to practice in nearly every day, and a stupendous Steinway piano and a smallish but mighty pipe organ (it has everything included, just not in mass quantities). I get plenty of time to practice on it, and I am learning this semester that there actually is time for everything somehow if you don't worry about how you are going to get everything done and just keep working. I am thankful to countless dead persons who have provided so much wonderful organ and piano literature that I can access so easily thanks to the efforts of countless more people who are putting it on the internet.

Speaking of the internet, I have traded emails with people from all over the world and learned things I wouldn't have without the ease of access to so much information. Not to mention being able to share all kinds of music and musical thoughts with you, wherever you are. Some of folks are on the other end of the globe listening to me play the piano right now. I've never been able to figure out why I'm so popular in China, but thanks.

Fast forward to this week: a kind woman in Scottland whom I have never met except through email and blogging sent me an email to ask if my family was ok after the tornadoes that ripped through central Illinois this week. We are. Some are not, but it amazes me how human networks mobilize to take care of persons in distress. Also, as the typhoon in the Philippines has made abundantly clear, there are concerned and compassionate people all over the world.

At choir practice this week a woman whom I had not seen in a while gave me a book she had written. I was at first confused why she was handing me the book until I saw the author. It was a book of poetry. I had visited her in the hospital at least a year ago (which I didn't even remember) and given her a CD of my music to listen to while she was there (I probably smuggled in our mini CD player for the occasion). She wanted to share something of her creation now. I was touched.

Some other members of our congregation are not in such fine shape this holiday. They have moved in some cases far away and we are able to get updates from concerned parishioners and sometimes for the people themselves. It is a close family.

We will be with ours this week, consuming the customary bird and stuffing and watching the football on the television with the niece and the nephew running about the house joyously.

Finally, I would like to thank you for bothering to read this blog. Unless you are a spambot. In which case I'd like to wish you a

Wednesday, November 20, 2013


When you are a working musician time is important. I estimate I play around 60 different pieces of music each week. I play for five choirs, for four weekend worship services, with two bands, and in the last two weeks I had two different concert programs to play. There is never enough time to practice everything, let alone practice it as thoroughly as you'd want to.

That's where being able to figure out just how and how much to work on each piece becomes not only a useful skill, a point of pride, but a necessity, a survival skill.

A few thoughts I've collected about how to do that effectively:

I usually gravitate right to the most difficult part of each piece and start to work on it first. My theory is that time--the total amount of time in days and hours between now and the time that I will be playing this in public--is the single most important ingredient for playing the piece well, because the longer I have to become familiar with a piece the more time I can practice not only consciously, but also my brain can work on it in my sleep or while I am doing the dishes, etc. I want to get the maximum distance between myself and the performance. This means that for me Monday is the single most important day for preparing for next week's church service. Most likely I've already been working on the offertory for this week, but if I haven't, I want to hit it hard on Monday so I can gradually work less hard the closer one gets to the deadline. And I want to know immediately if I can handle the hard part or if I need to find something else. I usually have a plan B on hand if I am choosing the repertoire myself, but often I do not get to make that call. In any case, I know the piece will begin to feel comfortable and easy once I have spent a certain number of days on it (I've gotten very good at being able to tell in advance how long it will take me to learn something) and I want to get to that stage as soon as I can, polishing and perfecting, but knowing that if I run out of time I will still manage to get by decently.

As my sight reading skills have improved over the years I can get away with very little or no practice on many of the pieces I play for groups each week. That's important, because there is no chance I would get anywhere splitting my time between over a dozen pieces a day, much less around 60. Some of those pieces are repetitive things, like the church doxology, which I have memorized and can play in my sleep, as well as most of the hymns in the hymnbook. I've learned what I can leave alone, both in terms of whole pieces, and parts of pieces. I also learn more quickly, and often, during rehearsals, I can actually be improving my accompaniment part while simultaneously helping the tenors.

How did I learn to learn fast? By having to do it. Swimming in the deep end is a learned skill. There is no time to worry about it, no time to complain or to stress out. You just concentrate. Hard.

Sizing up difficulties and priorities occurs both on a macro and a micro level. Within a single piece of music there are always notes that are very important and notes that aren't. If I can't figure out which note that double sharp belongs to in the middle of beat four while playing thick chords at a hundred miles an hour I can leave that note out, play the rest of the chord around it and keep going. When you are playing with others they don't have time for you to figure out what you are doing. Many notes double the singers, some double other notes in the accompaniment, most simply fill in harmonies. But some are necessary as rhythmic foundations for the other parts to bounce off of. Or they carry the melody. Or some other bit of interesting musical information without which the texture is incomplete, or at least a lot less interesting. It would take a series of blogs to explain how I tell, on the fly, what notes I can safely leave out if I am getting my fingers twisted or if I need to be helping the altos and can't get all of the accompaniment notes squeezed in at the same time. In sum, I listen. Listen. Listen.
Being able to improvise and compose helps enormously because if I can figure out what is going on I can paraphrase it in a pinch. Being able to read a full score helps too because when in rehearsal with a choir I almost never play the same notes--sometimes I am helping the full choir, or part of the choir, or playing the accompaniment as it is with the occasional important notes for the choir to latch on to, or I can't get the page turned fast enough so I am making playing both staves with one hand (happens occasionally--involves a lot of jumping around!). The result of constantly changing is you learn to do it as a matter of course. It causes one to be extremely flexible because you can't very well complain about not having done it that way before if you never do it the same way twice to begin with!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Noise noise and more noise

I didn't want 2013 to pass us by without commenting on Luigi Russolo's futurist manifesto, "The Art of Noise." It turned 100 years old this year, and, since it adorns the listening archive page of Pianonoise: the website, I thought it deserved comment. (I should mention that there is a quotation from somebody at the top of each of pianonoise's near 100 pages. It's definitely a group effort.)

I first made the acquaintance of Russolo's manifesto back in grad school. Some excerpts of his essay, including the quote I used, come from a college textbook which I still possess. Although the website predates my use of the quote (and probably my knowledge of it), it still seems like a fun quote to have lurking around one of the site's nerve centers. Pianonoise is a resonant title, which, like my several resonant titles, means it is so called for several reasons, some of which I may not have thought of yet.

For instance, the term noise may be a bit of self-deprecation, as in, "I am just making a little noise on the piano." A number of people I have met "on the street" do not see it this way, and like to assure me that they do not think my site is noise at all. The term noise here is still thought of as a term of abuse. ("Turn off that noise!")

On the other hand, noise might be a more inclusive term, and an expanded way of looking at things. If I happen to write something that expresses an opinion on a political or social issue, particularly if it is in the minority, it may function as a kind of noise for people who do not care for it. It is possible (remotely) that later on those more prone to the exercise sometimes known as thinking about things will, if they haven't changed their minds, at least think about the issue at hand a little differently. In which case, does noise become more harmonious?

But for Mr. Russolo, and many a musical "futurist" in the early part of the 20th century, noise was more than that. It was liberating. It was a chance to escape from the predictable patterns and pat musical cliches of harmony that we had been playing around with for centuries, and explode the overtone system so that it included all of what sounded around us, not the natural world, but the one humanity had constructed in modern urban environments. It was a soundscape that was unashamedly artificial.

"Let us wander" he writes," through a great modern city with our ears more attentive than our eyes, and distinguish the sounds of water, air, or gas in metal pipes, the purring of motors (which vibrate and pulsate with an indubitable animalism), the throbbing of valves, the pounding of pistons, the screeching of gears, the clatter of streetcars on their rails, the cracking of whips, the flapping of awnings and flags. We shall amuse ourselves by orchestrating in our minds the noise of metal shutters of store windows, the slamming of doors, the bustle and shuffle of crowds, the multitudinous uproar of railroad stations, forges, mills, printing presses, power stations, and underground railways.  Nor should the new noises of modern warfare be forgotten."

I think we could probably do without the modern warfare section of the orchestra. Nonetheless, Russolo does have classifications in mind: he wants to divide his sound orchestra into six groups:

  1. Roars, Thunderings, Explosions, Hissing roars, Bangs, Booms
  2. Whistling, Hissing, Puffing
  3. Whispers, Murmurs, Mumbling, Muttering, Gurgling
  4. Screeching, Creaking, Rustling, Buzzing, Crackling, Scraping
  5. Noises obtained by beating on metals, woods, skins, stones, pottery, etc.
  6. Voices of animals and people, Shouts, Screams, Shrieks, Wails, Hoots, Howls, Death rattles, Sobs

These are the families of his orchestra and all sounds are combinations of these "primary" sounds. 

Like most ideas that are new, or unconventional, most people will probably find this bizarre in the extreme. One person who did not was John Cage, who, at mid-century was using his ears to listen to the sounds around him and composing music that often did not require the will of a composer at all, but could be achieved completely randomly. It is an entirely different way of looking at the question of music, and because it raises a rather fundamental question about the validity of centuries of tradition, few people have been all that interested in doing more than heap scorn on it.

Back in grad school we weren't all that keen on it either, although we had to learn about it in our class on the history of American music. We spent a class or two on the futurists. I remember the works of Edgar Varese, whose orchestra included sirens and car horns and so on. We didn't think all that much of him.

I had a classmate, however, who must have found it liberating. He went on to write, as I recall, a piece of music scored for (no kidding) rocks and white noise. One of his more conventional instrumentations, a piece for voice and piano, nonetheless included a lot of unusual ways of making that pairing function. I recall that the singer spoke quite a bit, and the pianist sang a little, and spoke, and that at one point the singer pushed the pianist off the bench and began to play. I remember all this because I  and a singer performed the piece once on a concert.

I rather liked the piece, actually. And I've always found the idea of pushing old boundaries interesting, even though I don't always like the musical results. At least it gives us something to think about. And sometimes it does a bit more than that. Sometimes it is quite a bit of fun and perhaps even profound. In other words, it does what music is supposed to do. It shines some light on our humanity.

But I realize you can't dance to it, or have it on in the background while you are doing the dishes. Which, ironically, seems to be what makes it noise.

What an odd world, no?

Friday, November 15, 2013

A union of opposites

I've been writing and thinking about what does and does not constitute a good church musician. Last week I dared suggest that having a personality and/or an ego wasn't all a bad thing, despite everything I've ever read on the topic. The point wasn't to encourage self-centered attention grabbing on Sunday mornings, but to suggest that having to be mediocre in everything so as not to be noticed was not a very good solution, and that there are ways both to be excellent in what you do and even be noticed for it that need not be interpreted as interfering with the larger picture. As beautiful as stained glass is, it needs to have light shining through it in order to accomplish its purpose. On the other hand, there is something uniquely beautiful about the rays of light being refracted through all the ornate glass. Get it?

Something else that Mr. Nevin, our guest from last week, said, is this: that too many people use church positions to advance their careers. and become puffed up from holding such important positions. I found this rather amusing, because I never thought of having a church job as an indication that one is a great musician. Perhaps this is because there are so many of them (churches), and all but the largest generally do not have great music programs. Instead, in Bach's day as well as our own, the best, and often most career driven musicians head for the concert hall or the university, and leave the church to founder on its own.

As a musician of both the concert hall and the church, however, I have to say that very often what I do on Sunday morning is actually more challenging than giving a concert. The concert arena may be more prestigious, but the challenges of a Sunday morning require, at least in my set of circumstances, a greater variety of skills in order to do the job well.

First there are a number of skills which I learned at the conservatory. I learned how to practice and prepare sometimes difficult music quickly and well, to play accurately, fluently and musically, from the attack on the first note to the silence after the last, to pay attention to detail, to balance the parts, to listen to the sound and make constant adjustments so that the musical though was clearly articulated, stylistically accurate, emotionally satisfying, and sometimes viscerally exciting. This applies to playing on one's own as well as with others. It requires both technique and understanding, disciplined and thoughtful preparation and being in the moment.

Then there are a number of things that I did not learn at the conservatory. I have learned to create my own music, on the spot, and on reflection, sometimes writing it down. When I am improvising with others I listen to what they are doing and try to compliment it rather than getting in the way, taking the lead at times and following at others. I can play pieces in different keys if the soloist can't get up to that high G that morning. I can add a beat or a measure if the singer(s) didn't come in on time, probably so nobody will notice. I may have to add a few measure to the morning prelude if the acolytes didn't get started on time or communion took longer than we thought it would. If the offertory is in one character and the doxology is in another I try to make an introduction to the doxology that transitions smoothly between them. If the choir is in fine voice I let them sing a verse of the hymn with little or no accompaniment, adjusting my part as my theological imagination and the sureness of the singing allow.

Basically, there are two major areas going on here that do not apply in the concert hall. One relates to working with amateurs, for which there are any number of useful skills which really require a high level of musical understanding so that you can bring out the best in people of widely differing ability, and so that everyone, regardless of their skill, sounds better with your help. You can achieve this subtly. The other is that because of issues of timing and because there are so many different kinds of music required in each service, one has to continually be thinking, making decisions during the serice itself. Playing a concert, as highly skilled as you have to be, can in essence be a replication of decisions you have already made about how you are going to approach the music. You can't get through a church service that way. What ends up happening is that you have to plan ahead as well as you can, know your stuff, and then know how to deal with all manner of predictable and unpredictable situations that continually call on you to make it up as you go. You have to have something to contribute and you have to listen to what everyone else is contributing and help them to do it well. This calls for a combination of skills that deal with the written note and the unwritten note, creativity and re-creativity. It is a union of what seem to be opposing skills, particularly when one considers that the nature of each of them is to make it unnecessary to have recourse to the others (for instance, planning well seems as though it would leave nothing to chance and no room to improvise; planning to improvise does just the opposite!) and yet, when one's best efforts in one direction inevitably break down, there are the other skills to prop you, and everyone else, up.

I realize I've said enough in the last paragraph to introduce about 50 blogs on the topic, and eventually, I'd like to do just that. In the meantime, I'll finish up with a little anecdote.

This summer we had a guest pastor. I was trying to be helpful before the service and pointed out to him that ordinarily on weeks that we have communion (as we did that Sunday) we only sing one hymn; however, probably by mistake, all three appeared in the bulletin. However, I told him I was not only flexible but was ok with last minute decisions. So if you'd like to sing the hymn, just announce it. You can decide right at the time, I told him. If you announce it, I'll play it, and if you don't announce it, I won't play it.

Well, about a minute before the hymn, as the liturgist is reading the scripture at the other lectern, the pastor whispers over to me, "let's not do the hymn." ok, I said. I closed the hymnal. I was this close to leaving the organ bench to join my wife for the upcoming sermon. Then the liturgist announced the hymn!

One of the skills I forgot to include above is that it helps to be able to play hymns from memory. Or, failing that, to be able to play with one hand while finding the hymn with the other. Or, you can just make sure you talk to the liturgist before the service, if you can find them in time! There is generally more than one solution. But they don't always work, which is why you always have to be thinking ahead to plan B, and, for heaven's sake, have a good time with it!

Doesn't this sound like something you'd like to do on a Sunday morning? Believe me, you'll never be bored. Not if you're doing it well.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

more on the art of pitch giving

It may seem a little like overkill to spend two blogs talking about the fine art of giving pitches to choirs, but actually it is just this sort of attention to detail that makes one not only obsessive, but also a fine accompanist.

Therefore, a few more thoughts on last week's topic:

In a performance, one's role is generally restricted to playing the first chord of the piece, rolled bottom to top (bass, tenor, alto, soprano). In a rehearsal, the point is to give as much, and no more than, is needed. If the director is starting over again from the same spot, the choir may be able to remember their pitches and you won't have to remind them at all. Or, you may be able to get away by playing the chord all at once, not a note at a time. It saves time.

If one of the parts has a note that may be hard to find, I usually linger on that note a bit before proceeding to the top. Let's say its the tenor part. I would play   bass...tenor....(slight pause)..alto..soprano.

I usually give the pitches fairly quietly, as it allows the director to interject something over the top, and it forces the choir to have to listen a bit harder than when you are basically shouting pitches at them.

Sometimes you not only want to give the opening pitch, but the next note they will have to sing, particularly is it is a difficult interval, or something that sounds difficult in context (in other words, it is simply a fifth, which seems easy until you put it with the altos, who are singing something that clashes violently with that pitch).

Think like a choir member. If I'd want to hear something to help me out I play it. If it seems easy enough that they don't really need the hand holding I don't play it.

A lot of these suggestions rely on judgement calls. If you have to discuss everything with the director it just kills time; therefore, as long as I am not getting dirty looks from that quarter I decide on how to give the pitches, beyond the following obvious cues from the director:

The words "pitches, please"

A look in my direction

Air pitch giving, in which the director mimics playing the notes in the air. If you get the timing right, it looks like magic.

After you've worked with a director for very long you develop a rehearsal rhythm, and you can generally tell what they want and when they want it, which is also a helpful time saver, particularly as there is an awful lot to communicate in a rehearsal and there are a surprising number of false assumptions one can make when attempting to communicate about anything, never mind when giving out musical information in a hurry.

One last thing: you'll note that none of this has anything to do with technical achievement on the piano. And yet it makes a huge difference. There are a lot of things that fall into this category. That is good news and bad news. The bad news is they don't teach this is school. The good news is that it is very simple, and yet it is something that has to be constantly honed and attended to. And, it is one more way to avoid boredom and have a grateful choir.

Monday, November 11, 2013

pianonoise revealed

I thought you might like to take a little backstage tour and see what you are listening to here at pianonoise.

This Steinway B, built in 1911 and rebuilt in the mid 1990s is what I play on nearly all of the recordings I make (the exceptions being if I occasionally drop one in from a concert recording from someplace else).

The world headquarters of

This Schantz organ from 1984 makes most of the recordings you here on the organ side of things. I make the recordings from the back of the church usually so you can't hear key clicking and you get the resonance and ambience of the whole building. That means I have to start the recorder and run to the other end of the sanctuary to play. I edit that part out, unlike many of my Youtube colleagues who can be seen running to and from their instruments.

Since I place the microphones about twenty feet apart, you should get a pretty good idea of where the pipes for each sound are located. I've noticed that lately on a few recordings I've made. I'll divulge a map of the pipe room some other time!

The digital recorder I use looks like it has been through the war. It is an MR8 from Fostex that I bought in 2003 and still works although there have been several instances where I have thought it was going to pack up. Most recently I had to have one of the connection re-soldered. One of the microphones kept cutting out in the middle of the recordings, which is kind .of annoying, and made me role about half-an-hour of "tape" in order to capture the three minute piece I'm going to share with you.

It is a piece I played on Sunday by a fellow named Charles Alkan, prodigy, eccentric, and soon to be 200-year old composer (later this month). Late in the piece, at the loud part, you can here three-note chords in the pedals, which took some figuring on my part since I wasn't used to it. But you live, you learn, and by Sunday I had it figured out. It didn't even seem that hard. Which means was really able to do it, finally.

Alkan: Prayer no. 1