Wednesday, January 30, 2013


When I was just starting music school I remember asking myself, "how does a concert pianist practice?" I figured I couldn't very well sneak into somebody's house and find out. But right away, my response to my own question was, "become one and find out!"

These days I probably don't actually qualify as a concert pianist since I don't give many concerts. But I have taken on some of the most difficult literature written for the instrument, and I've become a "concert organist" into the bargain. And I think I've been able to answer that question. It is a long answer and it takes many hours--of practice.

I've read I don't know how many times advice from teachers telling their students to practice passages "10 times" Now I'm going to compound last week's heresy in which I announced that I don't play scales to warm up every morning by telling you I don't play each passage 10 times. Ever. That I know of.

The reason I (probably) don't play each passage 10 times is that I never keep count. My goal in practicing is not to play something a certain number of times, it is to play it until I can play it well. Some passages probably don't need very many repetitions, and others I probably play at least 100 times. But who's counting?

While I am playing, I am constantly diagnosing the problems I'm having. If I keep missing the same note, I focus on just that note. If the rhythm isn't precise, I work on that. If the articulation is flabby, I work on that. Usually there is a specific area that needs more work than the rest, just as there as certain parts of the piece that are more difficult than other parts of the piece.

For many people, that approach might not work. People seem to need to quantify things; particularly if they aren't really enjoying their labor, they will want to be able to stop after a set number of repetitions, like somebody lifting weights or doing push-ups. However, if our weightlifter really wants to improve, he or she is going to need to push past the pain, and last week's number of repetitions, and go further. One more! yells the coach. No pain, no gain, says the motivational poster.

The strange thing about it is that it is my impatience, combined with a natural desire to avoid suffering that leverages the whole process. Because at some point, when the passage becomes easy, I stop having to worry about getting it right and start to think about getting it musical. It is no longer drudgery; it is enjoyable. The sooner I can get from the pain of assimilation to the joy of making music the better. And if I spend a very long, arduous day playing something so many times that I never have to put in that kind of work again, all the better. If I only play it 10 times, counting all the way, tomorrow might not be much better. I'll have to start over again, and I sure don't want that!

In other words, taking the passage from a bunch of notes to a musical gesture is not easy sometimes. And therefore I should work all the harder to make it that way. If this little equation seems like just the opposite of what seems natural you have the paradox of practice right in your hands. And you know why so few of us get very far with music. It is an unfortunate truth that the first steps are often the hardest; it is then, before we have any results to raise our spirits, that we have to work the hardest!

But the other reason I don't count is that I just don't have the brain cells to do it! I am busy figuring out what I can do to master the passage. The faster I can figure that out the more practice I can save myself. If my whole mind is engaged I'll get there a lot faster. And counting repetitions is just a diversion.

Think about it: does anybody really care if you played that measure 10 times? Or do they care if you can play the music well?

My brain isn't given to repetition anyway. It gets bored. But when I'm fully engaged, spending each moment sizing up the passage and suggesting improvements to myself, it never seems the same twice. Because every time I play a passage it is slightly, if ever so slightly, improved. And now I can work on it from a different angle. It is the same with music making. Each moment is unique. And being in that moment, rather than counting how many times I have to do something, signifies real commitment, and real reward.

Monday, January 28, 2013

some assembly required

If they sold piano sonatas at IKEA, they would come in a box, and you'd have to put them together yourself. There would also be optimistic hieroglyphs with ambiguous arrows and no written instructions within miles.

Fortunately, navigating today's selection isn't going to be that difficult. But, rather than simply listen to the whole thing at one gulp (even if it is a small gulp), I've divided it into sections, so you'll have to strike the play button each time you want to go on to the next part.

The upside to this is that there will be absolutely no confusion about where a new section begins; when the music gets to the end of one part, it stops until you do something about it. Call it the first interactive piano sonata. It's the latest, greatest thing in piano sonatas, and everything else.

The first part of a sonata has the technical term "Exposition" because that's where the composer launches his musical ideas for the piece. This is divided into two parts. Here is the first one:

Exposition: part one

Now if you take a few seconds to let your head clear before playing this next part, you might come to the conclusion that this next part is rather different--you might even think it is a completely different piece of music. That will depend, partly, on how you heard the "modulation," that is, moving from one key to another. Between the two parts of the exposition the composer moves to a new key, which is a lot like moving to a new location in the physical world. Depending how smoothly the composer does it you might not notice it;other times is is jarring. In either case, there is a new melody and a new rhythmic idea in this part:

Exposition: part two

Now, classical composers are more reasonable human beings than popular mythology might suggest. They know they've given you a lot to absorb, that's why there is always a repeat sign at this point. In order to faithfully reproduce your classical sonata, at this point you need to go back and play both parts of the exposition again (in order). Otherwise, you'll get to the end of your put-it-together-yourself sonata and realize you have a couple of extra pieces left in the box with no idea where they belong, and we wouldn't want that.

Now it's time for the "development" section, in which the composer shows us what sorts of interesting things he or she can do with the ideas from the first section. Notice how many times you keep hearing that little rhythm from the very opening of the piece: the first thing you hear (dumm--dadeeh)--nearly every phrase has at least one of them tucked in there somewhere.


If you are the sort of piece who likes repetition, the "recapitulation" is your thing. At this point in the sonata, we are pretty much through adventuring, and the rest of the piece repeats the first part of the piece again, blow by blow. It is in two parts, just like the "exposition"--two "themes" and in the same order. Here is the first one again. Sound familiar?

Recapitulation: part one

The only difference (and philosophically it is a big one) is that this time we don't go to a new key for the second part. While you were busy listening to the clever ways the composers tossed his themes around in the development, Mr. Haydn was also taking us back to the key we started in so we'd be "home" in time for the last part of the sonata. Now that we're there, we're going to stay there.

Recapitulation: part two

You can catch the difference between these two parts by going back up to the 2nd part of the "exposition" and listening to the first few seconds, then hitting the button for the 2nd part of the recapitulation. The webplayer doesn't mind if you interrupt it; it should start playing the new file right away if the connection is not too slow and the internet gods aren't angry today.

And just like that you have a nice early-classical sonata. Beethoven would later write sonatas that were larger and more complicated, but this one will fit in your den. Next to that plant in the corner.

Friday, January 25, 2013

A New Song

Last week during the early service at church I was looking out on the congregation during the hymn (I don't have to keep my eyes glued on the music all the time so I look around occasionally). Since the singing is sometimes difficult to detect at this service owing to a small congregation I was looking around to see if people were singing. I was especially worried that a fairly new hymn--and in a contemporary idiom--might not be well received, or, for that matter, sung.

My quick survey was inconclusive. From my corner of the altar area the scattered people in the pews were a bit hard to make out--were their lips moving or not? And what were they thinking?

I remember a time, years ago, when a new hymn was being sung, and I looked up to see a woman near the front, frowning loudly, lips closed, apparently taking it rather personally that this hymn had been chosen, and making it clear to everybody that this was not her favorite hymn. This happens sometimes. People think that the people who choose music for their church are deliberately trying to make their lives difficult. To which I'd like to bring two observations: we try not to, and, we ought to, some of the time.

There are a lot of things that could be said about new or unusual hymns. One is that they are necessary. If a congregation sings its favorite few all of the time they will only reinforce the self-centered idea that church is there primarily to make them feel good about going. It's all about what you got out of the sermon; whether you liked the organ music; whether that hymn was too fast. This strikes me as theologically dangerous. Not to mention it is not good for our society in general. If we are trying to inculcate the idea that people need to love each other, to be there for each other, and not to insist on their own ways, we are going to have to provide some opportunities for that to happen. I can't tell you how many hours I have spent playing hymns that are not in my top 500.

But it should be observed that people in leadership roles and people who are not usually see things very differently. A person whose vocational life revolves around something (like music) is much more likely to want to try something new, and to get bored with the same material, than a person who spends 15 minutes a week singing and doesn't think about it all the rest of the time. The same five hymns don't grate on a person who can't remember that they sang them last week; not only that, but such a person is probably not at all concerned about the music anyway and is more interested in the comfort and joy familiarity brings. Learning a new hymn usually does the opposite. It is an uncomfortable experience--no matter how much you might end up loving that hymn later on, the birth pangs are never easy.

I know something about this because I spend a lot of time working on new music, and it never feels that fun. Once I can play the piece I'm glad I went through the turmoil of learning it, but at first, no matter how much enthusiasm I had when I reached the organ in the morning, after an hour or two my mind is swimming in notes and I feel like I've mentally bench pressed all I can handle for a while. I'm tired. Learning will do that to you.

So I'm never unsympathetic to people who feel uncomfortable with new things, even though I think it is part of our responsibility as leaders to broaden the horizons of the laity. Within reason, our tolerance for adventure, and making the sacrifice to expand our understanding is good for the folks in the pews. But suppose it is the middle of the service and it is time to sing something I've never heard before. What do I do?  I could spend the time being frustrated and silent, and then give the music director an earful when the service is over. But supposing I want to do something more constructive, what do I do? Here are a few coping mechanisms:

---Listen. If its a hymn, you'll hear the same melody on every verse. Probably the same musical phrase repeated on several of them. Maybe lines 1, 2 and 4 are the same. If its a praise song, maybe the chorus is easier to pick up on than the verse. Generally, if its a new hymn, I play it all the way through for the congregation before we start, rather than a simple one or two line introduction. Once at a service I told people I was going to keep playing it until felt like they knew it--look up and smile when you think you've got it, I said. When I see enough people looking up and smiling, we'll start! In any case, if the hymn has four verses, make a deal with yourself to join in on verse 3 and spend the first two just listening to the tune so you can pick it up. No rush.

---Meditate on the words. There's no reason you can't pray during a hymn! If you feel like you can't pick it up, read the words to yourself and think about them. This is something we ought to be doing more of anyway, whether or not we can sing the hymn! And if you don't mind being a bit of a gadfly, you can say them out loud. The worst thing that can happen is the people in the pew with you will think you can't carry a tune.

---Pick a note that sounds like it belongs and chant the words on that note. You may get a few looks, but, hey, people need their worlds enlarged a little, right?

---Have a sense of humor about it. Nobody is really noticing that you aren't singing the hymn (except maybe the organist :)  If all else fails, grab a tambourine or some woodblocks and join in!

---Become an organist. (this one is easy!) That way you don't have to sing unless you want to. Also, you get to dance.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Practice your vegetables!

Of the hundreds of fun arguments piano teachers can get into, one of them predictably involves the playing of scales. Most teachers would stress their importance, and most students would prefer not to play any. They aren't much fun, after all. And many a student has quit, partly in frustration over the amount of technical exercises required. Recently I read a blog in which a musician recommended about an hour of technical exercises every day, to which I had the natural student reaction: wow! How are you going to have any time to practice actual music? And, wow, would that be a dull hour! Only I'm not a student. I'm a professional.

After that it just seemed liked too much fun to start my first music-making related blog by confessing to this rank heresy of mine: I don't play scales in the morning. Or ever--well, hardly ever.

I ought to clarify that a bit for people who would like to take my confession as ironclad proof that scales are worthless. I have been playing the piano for over thirty years, and during my student days there was a period when I spent time every day playing scales and technical exercises (like Czerny or Hanon). And if a scale shows up in a piece of music that I'm playing, I can execute it cleanly and quickly. If you can't, then maybe you don't get off so easily.

Nevertheless, there is one thing that both of us probably don't like about scales, and that is the mindless, repetitive nature of the beasts. In order to combat that, I want to approach these ubiquitous warm ups with a simple question: Why? What are these things really for, anyway? Here's what I've come up with:

They stretch your muscles: If this is the only reason to play scales, you may not need them. Depending on what you are playing, it might not be that necessary to get limber, particularly for an hour. I don't stretch my muscles when I go for a 13 mile run, which is supposed to be another sin, but that is because my muscles stretch while I'm running, and I'm not in danger of tearing them because I don't go full out right from the start--or at all. I'm pacing myself because it's a long run. On the other hand, if I were going for a sprint you'd better believe I'd want to be fully stretched. If you are going to be playing rapid passage work, you'll want to be limber, or you really could hurt yourself. Fingers are muscles, too.

They teach you how to play scales: This also sounds like a pretty useless, or insular, gain, but occasionally  scales pop up in pieces of music, and knowing them means having a part of the music that comes ready-made. You shouldn't have to think about a four-octave E major scale in the middle of a sonata, you should be able to say "Oh, that's just a 4-octave E major scale" and get on with your business without having to learn it from scratch. A scale takes a series of notes and makes one unified musical gesture out of them (or one comprehensible unit for the mind), the way a series of letters become words and words become phrases. A scale is a way to think on a macro-level. While the average piece of music may not have any scales in it at all, or only a few, this is one of the few patterns that will predictably appear in the literature, particularly during the classical period. That's because rapid runs became the fashion once the piano facilitated them, titillating the ears of composers and listeners alike, which brings us to the next reason for being able to play them quickly and easily:

They sound cool. No justification is forthcoming on this point, nor is it necessary!

They teach patterns, including automatic fingerings (which will come in handy later when playing unfamiliar literature), and make the special topographical feel of each key familiar. Knowing an A major scale should help with the all-important orientation of rises and falls (sharps and naturals) of any music in A major. Since you probably aren't going to be playing in A major every week for the rest of your life (there are 12 major and 12 minor keys, after all, plus enharmonic equivalents, and the odds are you aren't going to be working on 24 pieces at once), a warm-up scale may be a reminder of how the pattern, the feel, of a key works even when you aren't playing music in that key. The problem there is that while a scale should lead us to be able to think fluently in that key (it really slows you down if you have to remind yourself the C is sharped every time you get to it), if it only remains a static pattern that you use as a routine warm-up exercise  it may shut off your mind instead of waking it up. In which case you need to go from theory to application. Some suggestions:

Rather than playing the scale the same way each time, try starting on different notes within the scale (say, the third note) and playing an octave or two, using a variety of notes of the scale as the beginning and end points. That way, you'll have to think about what you are doing, and how the pattern of hills and valleys fits into it.Change direction frequently, and zigzag your way up and down the scale. Also try patterns like 121232343454 etc. preserving the same thumb crossings. (or 1324354657 etc.)

For me, improvisation in each key really helped me to think in each key far more than scales ever did. Even if the idea of making up your own tune scares the pants off you, you should be able to make up your own single line melodies in different keys: choose one a week, and improvise in it for several days as needed until a key starts to feel like an old friend, rather than a bunch of sharps and flats you can barely remember.

These last thoughts take scales from being great ways to flex the muscles but turn off the mind, and turns them into patterns that are present everywhere in music, in melody, harmony, and rhythm. My dictum is that five minutes of practice with your brain switched on is worth an hour of mindless repetition. It isn't that repetition isn't absolutely vital; it's that getting your brain involved will cut your practice time greatly, not to mention making your playing more meaningful.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Caffeine Society

Consider this your morning Joe.

Joe Haydn, that is. And, since we are all in a hurry these days, you'll be happy to know that you are getting the full nutrients of an entire piano sonata in just five minutes. A sonata by Beethoven might take upwards of twenty full minutes to listen to. A sonata by Brahms, half an hour. But Joe here has written three full movements, each fulfilling the architectural requirements of a sonata movement, and finished it in under five minutes. Nice of him.

Alright, he had a little help. Yours truly, being a modern pianist, did what modern pianists tend to do with Haydn these days, which was to take him rather fast.

We don't have any recordings of Haydn playing his own works obviously, but many folks in the know think that pianists are breaking the speed limit when it comes to the classical era. It is likely that we are playing Haydn faster than he or his contemporaries would have played, for the following reasons: 1) The action of early pianos wouldn't have supported runs as fast as they do now. 2) Although they were hardworking and dedicated musicians, they would not have been able to spend 8 hours a day in little practice rooms doing nothing but practicing pieces written before they were born, like athletes training for the Olympics to be bigger, faster, stronger with each generation. Instead, they were busy writing the next piece for the next royal occasion, practicing the orchestra, teaching the young princessa, trying not to get cholera, and so forth.

So while my colleagues are all breaking speed records in Haydn to win competitions and impress audiences, I think we'd do well to remember that speed isn't everything. On this occasion, however, it turns out I am guilty of that very offense. One of the nice things about having a blog is you get to flagellate yourself in public.

There is an upside to this, however, which is that you don't have to listen very long to figure each movement out. For instance, in the first movement, it only takes 14 seconds to reach the end of the first section, which is then repeated, causing you to have to spend another whole 14 seconds listening to it.

This repetition is important, and I'll be focusing on it in subsequent blog posts. I only mention it now so I can repeat it later (har! har!).

Part two of the first movement lasts another 18 seconds. It is also repeated (0:46), by which time a grand total of 1:05 has gone by.

The blueprint for the second movement is similar: and A section (12 seconds) repeated (:13-:24), a B section (:25-:36), also repeated (:37-:48), then a contrasting middle part, also in two sections (C and D?), each repeated, and a return to sections A and B, which you only get to hear once this time.

Then the third movement, which goes by pretty fast--part A lasts 18 seconds (plus repeat), and the B section, another 22 (plus a repeat).

And just like that, an entire piano sonata has gone by. If you live on the west coast you've probably got time for another one before you head out the door, but, I'm sure you're watching your diet. One sonata is enough for this morning. Besides, this one has clearly got a lot of sugar in it.

Haydn: Sonata in C, Hob. 7
Finale: Allegro

Friday, January 18, 2013

Guilt by association

The pipe organ is a fascinating instrument with a very long history. Today, a very thumb-nail sketch of the history of the organ as used in the church.

Organs have been around since the 3rd century B. C. when a Roman named Ctesibius attached a set of pipes to a box with some keys (note: not a remotely professional description of an organ) and, behold! The one-rank wonder was born.

Ctesibius's invention involved using water power to move the air through the pipes (a "hydraulis"); later on, pumping bellows was found to work better. Apparently, rich Romans liked the invention enough to play it at home, a specimen of which is pictured below:

(This organ, at a museum in Hungary I visited this summer, was dedicated to the local firehouse after its first player, the purchaser's wife, died. Unfortunately, the organ burned along with the rest of the town a few years later and only the metal pipes are left. Yes, you read that correctly: it was housed in the fire station at the time of the fire.)

Poor Romans also found a use for it: as part of their festivals, thus associating the organ with the Roman circus. Unfortunately, when the fledgling Christian church came into being, the pipe organ was therefore NOT on their list of favorite instruments. For over a thousand years, the organ was not sounded in any parish. This might seem odd to people living today, especially when (as the Catholic Encyclopedia notes) "the organ has the special blessing of the church."

It only took about a thousand years for them to get over their antipathy.

But in case, dear reader, you think I am being unkind toward our Catholic brothers and sisters (please don't; there are plenty of things to admire, and plenty of blame to extend to everybody), Protestantism got the next crack at such simple-minded associations, when, only a couple of centuries later, they decided that the pipe organ was too Catholic! (That would have been funny if only they had known....)

You may have heard that, for a few centuries, Protestants and Catholics didn't exactly get along real well. In case it looked like the two faiths two closely resembled each other, Protestants would smash statues, ruin art, and destroy pipe organs.

A couple of centuries later, at least in some parts of Europe, the organ managed a comeback.

These days it seems to be alive and well and hanging out in a church near you. Of course, there are many people now who like the blame the organ for everything that is wrong with the church (after all, it's much easier that way). The standard complaint now, I gather, is that it is representative of all things old and old-fashioned, and that it scares little kids. Thus it needs to move over for the drums and the guitar.

I'm going to look like a heretic to some of your organists out there, but I actually play in the contemporary service at our church, along with the drums and the guitar. I really don't think the roof will cave in because we've invited some other instruments into the church, or even other musical styles. So don't plan on me saying anything negative about "contemporary" services. I will, however, defend the "old" organ.

The organ is an amazingly flexible instrument. It has a lot of sound possibilities and a lot of ways to combine them. It can be extraordinarily loud or as soft as a whisper. It can inspire awe and even terror, or comfort and soothe. It can play quickly or slowly, with dignity or humor; it can entertain, or facilitate worship.

It is a pity that the early church didn't see these possibilities at first; it could have spared a lot of sad history. True, the organ didn't have all the permutations it does now; but a person with vision could have said "sure, we hear it at the circus, but what else can it do? What if we used it differently? What would it say to us?"

Instead, people knew what they heard, and that was it. And out of it came an argument that sounds an awful lot like what you'll hear today from people who have only heard what sounds like an organ at the beginning of "Phantom of the Opera." The organ is only meant for horror movies...

I go on a lot of websites devoted to recent movements in the church; younger people who are doing exciting new things in their respective denominations, starting new churches, inspiring new thinking, and so on. Unfortunately, I have to wince when I hear comments about organs and organists which seem to be universally negative. In many cases the organ is standing in the way of progress, apparently.

One fellow suggested that he'd love to get rid of the organ at his church and replace it with a drum circle.

I thought....Ok, you want a drum circle? That'd be cool. It would be hard to lead hymns without somebody who could play a melody (trust me; they'd sing all their old favorites alright, but throw a new one in there and...) but what the heck.

But does that mean we have to throw out the organ completely? Isn't there any room for all that getting-alongness we're supposed to be doing?

I'd play a piece for organ and drum circle if somebody would write one. And if we could get all those people to show up on Sunday with their drums. Maybe I'm a little outside-the-box.

It's a lot easier to ignore history and think that whatever you happen to be doing right now is it and the rest is useless. Maybe the best reason to keep the organ around is that, with its long history, it reminds us that we are not the center of the universe, and that there are many persons who have gone before us.

I have to get going now to practice some music for Sunday. It's....

only about twenty years old, and the composer is still alive.

Hey, it happens. The tradition is not dead. It lives. But it is a tradition, after all.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

What's in a Name

Welcome to the first Wednesday edition of Pianonoise :the blog. As of today, my diabolical three-part plan is complete.

What diabolical three-part plan, you ask?

Why, my master plan to take over the world by blogging it to death. On Mondays, I routinely assault it with piano music (and sometimes organ music). Besides a recording, there is information about the piece. I am generally less interested in the history or colorful anecdotes surrounding a piece than the much more elusive quest to refine our ears and get more out of listening to the music itself. although I hope we're entertained and enjoying ourselves along the way. On Wednesdays, we'll discuss issues of importance to people who make music, from the standpoint of making it better. As a composer, improviser, teacher, accompanist, and soloist, I may have accumulated some useful advice for other musicians; at any rate, we can have discussions about it. On Fridays, I post music and commentary related to my post as a church musician. Mondays and Wednesdays are generally "secular"--persons of all faiths or lack thereof are welcome on Fridays as well, but if you have the vampirical tendency to shrivel up whenever you see or hear any mentions of religious material, you'll want to avoid Fridays.

Now then, the Wednesday edition. You'll note that I mentioned quite a few categories of music making above. That's because I have a lot of ways of making music. I am a product of both the conservatory (music school) with advanced degrees, a concert musician, and a creative goof-off who has learned a lot of things not on the syllabus. I make music by myself and in groups large and small, and I continue to be interested in teaching persons, young and old, what I think I know about the music making process. That means there is a lot to discuss, which leaves the scope of this blog wild and free, but also makes it a little hard to organize. What exactly are we going to discuss today, and just who will be interested?

I've given each section of the blog names. The Monday edition is called "Listen up!" because its primary focus is on listening to music and its primary audience is anybody with ears who wants to use them more effectively. The Friday edition is called "The Visible Organist" because I plan to not only share music but discuss issues related to church music as an organist (and pianist) as if I were not hidden behind a screen, up in a balcony, or absent from a congregation's notice, and had the effrontery to speak to anyone interested as a friendly, and perhaps knowledgeable voice from the organ bench; hopefully we will all learn something in the process, as well as experiencing some great music.

But the Wednesday title still bothers me a little. Tentatively I'm calling it "Musicianship for Smart People" because the same title for "dummies" was already taken, and, although I don't mind a little self-deprecating humor, never mind a little realism (large numbers of consumers don't seem to mind it either; it is a successful series), I thought perhaps we could use a little bit of an affirmation once in a while, and as a professional musician, I'm afraid the amateurs with whom I work and for whom this blog is mainly intended will think they are too dumb to get what I'm talking about anyway, or worse, that I think they are too dumb to get it. Hence the uplift. You all get to be smart people when you log on here. Don't get too carried away, though. We are (all) smart people in progress. Is that a good way to look at it?

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Dresden Connection

A couple of days ago I finally made the acquaintance of the little Chopin waltz you are going to hear. It's rather popular, at least on the sorts of UNpopular radio stations that play that sort of thing; and I think you can hear it bouncing around the walls of your local music school, too. Strange that my fingers had not gotten to know it before.

The first problem I noticed was that my edition had a choice between two different versions of the same waltz, so off I went to the interwebs to find out why. Then I found out that, like many popular pieces of unpopular music, this too had a nickname. It was called the "Farewell Waltz." What was that about, I wondered? Was Chopin saying farewell to his friends, farewell to the piano, farewell to life? All sorts of pleasantly Romantic tragedy seemed forthcoming.

It turns out that the second version of our little waltz was based on a manuscript which originated when Chopin was in Dresden, Germany. The first version came from a friend of Chopin's who published it after Chopin's death and isn't based on any known source from the composer which means I don't trust it farther than I can throw it. So I learned the second version.

Now, it so happens that my wife is in Dresden at the moment, doing dissertation research, while I am home in Illinois. So, if you are reading this, sweetie, consider this a sonic present from me to you. Also, don't read the next paragraph.

Apparently our friend Fred was engaged to a young lady in Dresden and decided he couldn't go through with it. So he gave her a waltz instead. Terribly Romantic. Nowadays people break up over the phone, or through email, or text messaging, but with Fred Chopin it was, "I can't marry you--here's a nice waltz. Bye." At least, that's what the Wikipedia had to say about it. Musical anecdotes are notoriously unreliable.

In any case, whatever mess another young artist may have made of his love life, we have a nice waltz to listen to now. And it probably won't take any longer to listen to than it did to read the foregoing. Enjoy!

Chopin: Waltz in Ab, op, 69 no. 1, "farewell"

Oh, one more thing. I have a little gig coming up to help raise money for the local symphony on Valentine's Day. I could play this Waltz and tell this little story. What do you think? Good idea, or very bad idea? I mean, break ups are a part of romance, too, aren't they? Or is that too much of a downer?

Maybe I should stick with Rachmaninoff.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Visible Organist

When I was in grade school I had in my possession a picture of the Goodrich blimp. The Goodyear company has been famous for their blimps flying over major sporting events all over the country, and this visible symbol was not shared by the similarly named Goodrich company. Apparently someone thought it would be funny to send out promotional postcards of their non-existent blimp: it was merely a picture of some clouds and empty sky.

Being a church organist places one in a curiously similar position: I have, on several occasions, tried to contact a church's organist only to find that there is no organist listed on the church website, or in the church bulletin. It is as if the organist is there, and not there. In many churches the organist sits completely out of view of the congregation as well, so nobody actually sees him or her. When I first came to Faith UMC I might be left off published materials listing our staff (the only one, usually) and might not be informed of decisions that had been made, even ones that directly affected my job. This wasn't done maliciously, it's just that many churches are used to pretty much leaving the organist out of their calculations.

I'm pleased to report that that has changed significantly. Years ago I started attending staff meetings regularly. Both pastors expressed surprise that I wanted to attend; after all, their jobs consist of many a meeting, and I'm sure that any meeting that is not a job requirement seems like a meeting you wouldn't want to attend! But I found that it was an important way to know what was going on in the church, not to mention to find out when weddings had been booked, or some group would be using the sanctuary one morning and driving across town to practice the organ would be a waste of time. I remember reading the minutes of a meeting I hadn't been able to attend, stunned. The staff had decided to schedule a traditional service hymn sing for the same time as the contemporary service.  Someone had wondered whether the noise leaking from one sanctuary would be a problem for the folks gathered in the other, and they decided no, it wouldn't. What they hadn't considered was that the organist is also the keyboard player at the contemporary service and that meant I would be required to play both services simultaneously (I'm good, but not that good.....)!

These days, if the secretary is printing the bulletin a day early that week she contacts me to let me know so I can get my selections in before we go to press. If there is something unusual happening in one of the services the pastors or musical staff run it by me before hand so I know what's going on (even though we are all pretty good at flying by the seat of our pants when necessary). I'd say we've developed into a pretty close group.

I hear of or read about a lot of frustrations and frictions between organists and their churches, and it's sad. I think one of the reasons for that is a lack not only of respect, but of communication between parties. Often, I'll wager, the organist feels pretty cut off from the rest of the church. After all, we are often physically separated from most everyone else (the organist our church is about 30 feet away from the choir on the other side of the altar area and my office--the sanctuary where I practice--is on the opposite side of the building from everyone else's!), even to the point where it is impossible to see any part of the organist unless you are the organist! Sometimes they are up in a balcony  sometimes they are stuffed in the corner, sometimes they are in a completely different room (seriously, it happens).

Philosophically we are different people, too. We've probably spent thousand of hours in isolation in practice rooms learning our music (and continue to do that), we value music that most people don't listen to with any regularity, we have our own vocabulary, and a very different way of looking at things. The chances of feeling cut off from the rest of humankind multiply!

I offer no magic bullet for situations of estrangement between organist and congregation or organist and clergy; but I suggest trying to bridge that gulf. Hymnologist Erik Routley concluded one of his books with an exhortation for pastors and congregation: talk to your musician! If you are an organist, try to develop bonds with the rest of your church. Be there a lot! (I make sure to take practice breaks and walk down to the other end of the building to see people; a lot of business gets concluded there as well).  If people know and like their organist they are more likely to put up with a few offertories they weren't planning on listening to (that blasted Bach fellow again!). If the rest of your staff feels like you give extra effort to help them out and support their projects they are more likely to back you up when needed. It's about simple human relations.

This sort of transition could take months or even years to accomplish in full, a step at a time--but it is worth it. It requires patience and perseverance--two things a gifted organist ought to have plenty of just to have gotten all of that musical expertise in the first place. In the meanwhile, if you are a frustrated organist who feels like your church doesn't understand you and they are making your job difficult, let me extend you my sympathy. I need to remind you that you can only control one part of that situation, and recommend the position I've outlined in the paragraph above. But in coming weeks I'll outline some of the grievances that organists have about their situations, and perhaps you can get a sympathetic clergy or congregation to read those posts and begin to understand things from your/our point of view. It seems like a worthy mission. I only hope I can do it adequately.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The 13th Day of Christmas

You may have noticed that, on this blog, it's still Christmas. You may be sick and tired of it by now and wish it would just go away. And yet, here am I, with my tree still up (that photo is from last year), my website still filled with Christmas music (last day to listen to the pianonoise Christmas program, by the way), and yet another Christmas selection to throw at you.

Two reasons for that. One is that Christmas, as a religious holiday, actually extends through January 6th, the proverbial 12th day of Christmas (remember that song we love to hate? and believe me, I'm with you and that one). It also doesn't start in mid-September, which helps its staying power a little. In fact, having limited exposure to a shopping mall this year and watching no television might be the reason I don't mind extending the holiday to mid-January. True, I'm getting a little tired of it by now, but I'm not completely sick of it yet. In fact, this is the first year I can remember going the entire holiday season--all three months of it--and not seeing a single one of those commercials featuring luxury cars with bows on them. It's very exciting.

Not having to spend November fighting off holiday commercials really helped. But then, in addition to the aforementioned twelve days, we should add another one. If you happen to be from the Eastern Orthodox tradition, as is a student of mine, Christmas Day is actually today. That's because, a couple of calendrical revisions ago, December 25th would have been on what is now January 7th, at least according to the new-fangled (8th century) Gregorian calendar. But hey, what's the rush, anyway?

If it were up to me, Christmas would be later anyhow. One of the important things about Christmas is that it is very helpful in terms of human psychology. We take the darkest, coldest time of year (if you happen to live in the northern hemisphere) and introduce bright lights and eggnog and try to cheer ourselves through it all with parties and Christmas cheer. If you rush through it all, using it up before January, you are left with a long, bleak winter, and no lights and no holidays. Sure, technically the days are getting longer, but they tend to get bleaker for another month or so, don't they? So why not just save Christmas for a little? One word: merchandising. Everybody trying to get the jump and everybody else to make our economy hum, and the next thing you know, Christmas combines the festive flotation of Ramadan (a Muslim holiday which gets a few weeks earlier every year, but ENDS earlier, too) with the mind-numbing custom driven requirement to hold to the same date for the official celebration, no matter how tired of it we all are. But hey, if we keep this up, starting the holiday season earlier every year, eventually our friends in the southern hemisphere will be able dash through the snow in one-horse open sleighs for Christmas, too.

So I have one more short Christmas piece for you. It's a piece by Dietrich Buxtehude, and it's based (loosely, you might think) on "In Dulci Jubilo." It does bring to mind Albert Schweitzer's comment about how, in some of the pieces Buxtehude "tears the melody in pieces"--you might be able to hear fragments of it if you listen carefully, but if not, enjoy the sound, the harmony, and the musical enthusiasm of those little dancing sixteenth notes you come across every so often.

Buxtehude: In Dulci Jubilo

Buxtehude, by the way, was a busy guy. In addition to being the organist at St. Mary's he was also the church administrator. That would be like having Doug Abbott, our Director of Church Administration, and myself being the same person (although then you'd end up with a Dietrich Buxtehude who also played electric guitar).

For the last time this year, Merry Christmas. I hope it's been a joyful season. I promise I'll sober up and get started with the new year by Friday.

Friday, January 4, 2013

We're All Going to Die....weeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!!!

It's been a rough couple of months for human civilization. It always is.

First, we were told that an ancient (and still living) people from South America had predicted the end of the world, which was conveniently going to happen RIGHT NOW! (O MY GOD!)

The funny thing about that was that right before the Mayan Apocalypse  a few people were on the radio saying that, really, the Mayans weren't predicting the end of the world, it was just the end of a major cycle of their calendar, the way the year 2000 was the end of a major cycle of ours. To which the major media responded: LALALA, WE CAN'T HEAR YOU! WE ARE TOO BUSY TELLING EVERYONE THE WORLD IS GOING TO END AND WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE! Have a nice day, and don't forget we are your number one source for news (and mindless panic)!

Then on the first of January those of us in the United States went over the Fiscal Cliff. At midnight, my wife and I held hands and screamed like we were going down a roller coaster. It was fun.

But it turns out we are still here, disaster averted (or at least deferred), and so I have another blog post to write. As I do, I can't help wondering what the major apocalyptic disaster for the month of February will be. Any ideas?

This being the part of the blog that deals with church music, I thought I'd trot out a fun little piece I played last year for Lent, when we are thinking more seriously about our mortality. It was written by a Mr. Georg Phillip Telemann, a contemporary of Bach, and it is based on the hymn, "All Men Must Die." I made a recording of it the morning I saw it for the first time, so what you are hearing is decidedly a first impression:

Telemann: Alle Menschen Mussen Sterben (first version)

I don't know what your ears heard, but for me, listening to it again after several months, it seemed pretty cheerful, even a bit silly. Now it is possible that Mr. Telemann had his theologian hat on, telling us all that we need not fear death because Christ died for our sins and we have a glorious eternity to look forward to (actually, Bach had ways of incorporating theological constructs into his music, but with Telemann I'm not so sure). And as for the sunny major key, the hymn tune came with that part supplied already and there wasn't much Herr Telemann could do about that. But the third part...well, there's were I may be culpable.

Telemann left absolutely no directions regarding organ registration, so the choice to play the whole thing on one single flute stop is my own. And he didn't say anything about the speed of the piece, which may be the deciding factor in how the piece goes down. I played it pretty briskly. Why, you may ask?

Well, it's hard to pin down. As I looked at the piece, I noticed all the repeated notes, and the little falling gestures, and it just looked so good-natured and slightly daffy that I played it that way.

About a week later, I repented. Still not having played it in church, I thought, well, maybe if I played it a bit slower it would have more gravitas. Maybe the first version was a bit too undignified, I thought. Which is a little odd for my usual tendencies, but we'll discuss that later. You'll note that version two is a minute-and-a-half longer than the first version. I wanted to make sure it had some heft, if not a long face.

Telemann: All Menschen Muss Sterben (second version)

By the time I had gotten around to Sunday, I think I inclined to the first tempo again. I'm curious which one you'd vote for.  Of the 48 Chorale Preludes of Telemann, this is one of my favorites. I can see why he was so popular with the people. Although, if you don't think religion ought to wear a smile...well, I played another piece of Mr. Telemann's for Lent, and a woman told me afterward that it reminded her of the alligators from the Disney movie "Peter Pan."

The Karlskirche in Vienna where I played a few of Mr. Telemann's creations. I found the noisy elevator at right, which every five minutes carried workers to the dome for restoration work on the artwork to inspire much devotion and sober contemplation.