Wednesday, February 27, 2013

I can't think of anything good to write so I think I'll just throw some words together and hit 'publish.' Is that ok with you?

This one is for young composers. Whenever I encourage students to write music, the first barrier they come up against is they "can't think of anything good." And when they do think of something, it isn't good enough. Well, meet Joseph Haydn.

He's generally thought of as a pretty decent composer. Here's his entry. It's a movement from an early piano sonata:

Haydn, Sonata no. 12 in A, movement three: Finale

Now, at the risk of ruining the pleasure you get from listening to it by explaining what's going on, possibly making it seem boring and mudane, "decoolifying it" by taking it apart to examine and seeing whether that rush of notes really has anything to say, let me show you what his idea is made of. Let's break it down. It may sound pretty cool with all of those notes rushing around together, but sometimes those notes are just a lot of pre-fabricated activity that isn't really saying all that much. In the first few measures of this piece most of the activity is in the left hand, in a standard device known as an Alberti Bass. Here's what the right hand melody would sound like all alone without that Alberti bass in the left hand (which, by the way, is just a simple major chord whose members are played one at a time--1 5 3 5 3 5 and so on. It's named after a fellow who, if he didn't invent the idea, overused it considerably):


Now, since those rapid melodic twitches happen to have a name--they are known as inverted mordants, a kind of melodic "ornament" which had been around for a while by the time Haydn used it. (The first note of Bach's famous Toccata and Fugue in d minor is an inverted mordent.) Inverted mordents work like this: you play a note, play the note immediately below it in the scale, and then come back to the original note, all really quickly. You don't actually have to write out all three notes, you just write the first one and put a squiggle above it with a line through it--it's a kind of musical shorthand.  Let's get rid of the ornament, too, keeping in mind that Joe didn't really think of that on his own, either.  So here's what's left of our tune.


It's just four notes going up! How's that for not all that special. In fact, this is starting to look like the musical equivalent of cotton candy--just a blob of sugar whipped up into a large clump of mostly air and sold for 6$ at the country fair. Because without all that dressing from the left hand (which was a typical thing to do at the time) and those Baroque borrowed ornaments (also pretty standard) all he really had going for him was half of a scale. And even with all of those additions to make it sound like more was going on than actually was there is a real danger things are going to get boring fast. And he knows it, too. So here's what he does next:


A downward plunge. The right hand speeds up, so to speak. Like a rollercoaster, we go up slowly, and go downhill in a hurry.

Now the important thing to note here is that Haydn didn't look at those first four notes, decide they were boring, ball them up and start over (and over and over). He present his idea, which after all lasts about 5 seconds, gave us all a chance to figure out what was going on and then to just begin to wonder if things weren't getting a little predictable and THEN just as we started to think we needed a little more than a single ornament on every downbeat, gave it to us. Just what we needed, once we had a chance to notice we needed it. That takes a little patience from the composer, and the ability to see what is missing from an idea--and to let it be missing for a moment, and then to balance it after the listener has time to notice it too, and not before!

It's also a reminder that composers don't always have great ideas. And for many composers (not all of them) the important thing is what you do with the idea once you have it. That's often what makes the piece interesting--not the first line, but the rest of the story. Not the characters, but what happens to them in the course of the novel. In which case, sometimes it is better to have an idea that is pretty simple because it is easier to do things with it.

Joe Haydn's piece is not exactly a masterpiece. Maybe it is more the equivalent of musical chitchat than a great speech. But it really isn't bad. It has charm, it is fun to play and listen to, and even if he was having a bad day in the inspiration department he was able to make a lot out of it. That's where craft and skill come in. They are pretty underrated by the general public. But composers know their worth. Sometimes they make all the difference.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Must be a real snoozefest

Hello. Today's piece is a real snooze that I doubt you'll enjoy very much. Great advertising, huh?

Actually, it's not a bad little piece; you might even find it charming, and a little personable in a bubbly sort of way. I stumbled across it online last year and thought it didn't sound like it would take much time to learn and it would be a chance to play something from merry old 18th century England. And it's short.

I won't pretend it is a masterpiece. But as I said, the prelude has charm and seems like it ought to be good company for a minute and a half. The unfortunate part is that it has a fugue attached, and a rather stentorian, pious one at that.

Now I personally have nothing against fugues. But the problem is that the fugue is a very difficult musical form. It is hard to write a good one, and it is not that easy to listen to, either. There are so many things happening at the same time that it takes a well trained ear to be able to sort all that out--or at least the patience to listen to it over and over again.

But if you are thinking this might not be for you, you have company. It isn't just the general public that doesn't like them; a number of composers have said some rather unkind things about them as well. One of Bach's own sons said, in effect, that they just weren't worth all the trouble. A lot of later musicians have felt the same way. On the other hand, you'll find everybody from 20th century Russian symphonists to jazz pianists sticking short fugal sections in their pieces to, at the very least, establish their credentials as a composers to be reckoned with. Look, I can write good counterpoint. Aren't I something?

What is interesting is that often it is just these preconceived ideas that affect the final product most of all. If I as a composer think of the fugue as a dry, academic exercise, and I am asked to write one (probably as a class assignment), isn't it likely that that is exactly the kind of thing that I am likely to turn out? In other words, I think fugues are boring, and I am going to do my level best to make sure they stay that way.

That may be what has happened here, and why the best thing I can say about Mr. Wesley's fugue is that it is short (barely over a minute long), and harmless. I don't really know Mr. Wesley's attitude toward the fugue form, actually. One course of action might be to ask musicologist Nicholas Temperley, an authority in this area, who happens to live right here in Champaign. And I'm not even sure he'd know.

Anyhow, now that I've given the back half of the piece such a rousing send-up, I'd recommend you hit the play button anyway. It's shorter than the time it took to read all this.

Wesley, Samuel     Prelude and Fugue in D    (the fugue starts at 1:41)

But then I want you to do something else. I want you to listen to another fugue. I think you'll find this one more enjoyable. It was written by a fellow who really knew how to write them. He didn't find them dry or dull or too cerebral and as a result he wrote them with a kind of freedom and passion that you rarely find outside of his own works. A guy named Bach. I was going to put you onto a larger one of his fugues, but I thought I'd save that one for later. This is a short fugue in g minor which has earned the nickname "little" and isn't much longer than the one by Mr. Wesley. But what a difference. In order for this fugue to turn out the way it did, a lot of things need to be working together. For one thing, one's skill at writing several voices that work together has to be so great as to make it seem effortless. In other words, all the technical problems have to be solved so well that you don't notice they are there. And this particular fugue also happens to be very melodious, which might be cheating a little bit, but does make it a little easier listening than some of Bach's other fugues on first acquaintance. Still, on the whole, Bach was able to make what for others was an arid exercise in sheer cleverness without meaning into a universe of meaning teeming with life and vitality. I think what you'll find, actually, is that Bach's fugue is charming the way Wesley's prelude is charming. He doesn't give us a pleasant little preamble and then stop on a dime and announce it is time for our musical castor oil. All of which goes to show that feats of the head can still stir the heart, and make the toes tap a little, too. Amazing what you can do with a little musical medicine.

Enjoy. I mean that.

Bach: Fugue in g minor, "little"

Friday, February 22, 2013

Speaking figuratively

This week in church I'm playing a piece by Jan Sweelinck based on the hymn "I Call to You, Lord Jesus Christ" (or, in the original German, "Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ." Mr. Sweelinck lived from the latter 16th and into the early 17th centuries. He lived in Amsterdam for most of his life. He wrote organ music. He didn't own an IPOD or have a website. Or go to Disney world. What are the chances that a 21st century American is going to get something out of his music?

And yet that is my quest this week as I try to communicate with my congregation in a way that will at least stir some sense of understanding, if not appreciation, for the music of this seemingly remote individual. After all, I didn't really feel a sense of familiarity or understanding when I began learning the music, and I've had a lot more experience in musical matters than someone who walks into a church on Sunday morning and hears a piece by Sweelinck for the first time. To me, being able to communicate something that will help remove the barriers between the listener and the composer is important. But how to do it? And, can't the music just speak for itself?

An interesting question early this week led to some interesting results. While playing the piece through I started to wonder why the composer kept shifting gears so often: now the accompaniment was rapid, now slow, now jumped around, now was a series of smooth runs. What was making him change his mind so often? And yet, for all that, the hymn tune remained.

I had a little suspicion of what might be going on here. A number of composers of the time, particularly when they wrote music with words, or, in this case, music related to words in which the text is silent (ie, it is based on a hymn which you sing, but it is for organ alone so the words of the hymn are only implied) subscribed to the idea that you could invest those words with meaning depending on what you did with the music. Known as the "doctrine of figures" the idea was that if the notes when up it meant something, or if they went down it meant something; if they jumped around or were very active it meant something, and so forth. In its most extreme form one could get the idea that putting a composition together didn't involve creativity at all, and that, when faced with a concept, all you had to do was look up the "musical word" that meant that idea and you were all set. I don't think it really worked that way, though it might have tended in that direction.

I have to say I don't think because I am not much of an expert on this doctrine of figures. I've read about it here and there but I've had trouble locating any good sources that really explain it in detail. A few composers of the time wrote extensive works about the idea, complete with a compendium of musical analogues, and I hope eventually to get my hands on them and find out a few things. In the meantime, though, I've been going through middlemen.

It's rare that when I go online to find something out I get so enlightened so quickly, but, as it happened, an organist/scholar in Canada had posted a fascinating video in which she played the same piece I'm playing on Sunday, and, as each line of the silent text goes by, not only does she put the words on the screen, in Dutch and English, but her thoughts on what Sweelinck is doing, and why. Since I am new to this particularly field I don't know how certain she can be about it--how much is scholarly intuition or creative insight? But I have to admit it is intriguing. My favorite part of the video (and the music) involves a line from the last verse in which Sweelinck suddenly (at 8:15 in the video) switches to a triple time dance texture at the words "if temptation comes, Lord, defend me." Why there? Well, for many a religious soul in those times (and ours) dancing was worldly, sinful, and generally a bad idea. So apparently, summoning up a dance was a good way to remind us of a temptation we'd do well to avoid.

There are other ideas present in the music--times when the notes wander up and down aimlessly, times when they have jagged edges to represent negative emotions--all explained in this video. I'm linking to it here because I think it might well produce a kind of aha moment for you as well, and show something that we didn't realize was there. Sweelinck is indeed praying his way through this music, taking the text of the hymn as the basis for everything he does; it is not just an exercise in pretty music or finger digitation.

But to a larger question, because a few of you musicians out there will no doubt think all of this unnecessary. Shouldn't it all be obvious? Should we ruin the music by explaining it?

The composers of the time seemed to feel that explanation was unnecessary  and that what they were doing would be obvious to anybody. Perhaps they were being presumptuous. There are times, of course, when the notes go up or down or do something particularly sensational, that it does seem that most people would likely react to it pretty much the same way. People do that with marches and minor key music, flashy toccatas and erudite fugues. But it can quickly become a question of just how similarly we react and just when is a musical idea too subtle to admit that same idea to everyone regardless of preconditioning?

I've decided not to assume too much--after all, I didn't know most of this was there until I went looking for it. And I've decided part of my role as an organist is to help other people find these things, too--to appreciate their heritage, and to get something out of what we are doing on Sunday morning, as well.

Which is where the last sentence of my program notes took a turn this week. So far this may seem like a fairly learned exercise, of the understanding, and historical knowledge. But Sweelinck wasn't interested in making musical analogies for their own sake. He is setting a prayer to music. That isn't about simply knowing the words--it goes beyond that. It is about meaning them. Making meaning--in music, and in the hearts of the hearers.

Here's the video: Enjoy!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


I think I've read in a million places that church musicians are supposed to be flexible. I'm bringing it up in today's teaching and learning blog because, in addition to the unfortunately bargain-basement practicality that is at one end of the spectrum of reasons why this is important (in particular, you have to be flexible because most of the people you work with can't or won't be), the other side of this issue concerns both a challenge and a spectacular opportunity for the musicians themselves. Flexibility is also a sign of well-developed musicianship. Being able to adapt to last minute changes, work with a variety of styles of music and backgrounds of the people involved, and overcome obstacles that never announce themselves in advance and make it look easy all requires a very large skill set and a lot of quick thinking. Unfortunately not all musicians possess these qualities. You can't just preach flexibility at someone, it has to be built up over time. As with all learning, there are many more opportunities than most of us take. If we would see every obstacle as a chance to test our abilities and try to learn new things we would learn far more than we actually do, and rarely be bored.

One small case in point. Sunday morning the organ decided it was tired of playing an A below middle C when I asked for it and cut out just in time for the prelude. I couldn't do much about it while I was playing, nor during the service itself. If you are playing a pipe organ and aren't in the middle of a church service, here is something you can try if that happens:

--pull additional stops out until you get one in which the note will play. Meantime, keep playing the note over and over. Once you get one of the stops to work, cancel it again until you have the registration you had in the first place. The note generally behaves itself at this point--for a while, anyway.

My student was playing the offertory that morning. Unfortunately I had to be away most of the time rehearsing with the praise band (my job is a bit like serving two churches simultaneously) and didn't have a chance to plot strategy so I simply informed her that she'd have to do without one note during her offertory. It was probably a valuable experience as it was. But after the service we discussed some ways to get around a problem like that if you know about it before the piece starts--and in some cases, during.

Changing the choreography:

Since the affected stop was on the upper manual, I suggested she could have switched both hands to the lower manual, instead of the original plan in which the left hand was on the upper and the right hand on the lower. Or she could have scanned the piece to see if the affected note was in the right hand and if not switched the hands around, which would likely require a change in registration. It helps at that point to know your instrument and be able to produce a similar sound by using stops that sound pretty much alike. I've had to do that before when critical notes went missing at the last minute, which fortunately doesn't happen often.

Changing the key:

I also suggested that instead of playing the piece in its original key, F, she could have tried it in F#. This is not the easiest of my suggestions, but it is an immensely valuable thing to be able to do. Learning to transpose really comes in handy when the anthem singer says they can't get to the high note and would you mind moving the piece down a few keys. Like most skills a good deal of practice is required to get proficient. And there are plenty of opportunities if you are always on the looking for them rather than trying to avoid them. For example, you could play at least one of the hymns every week in a different key. Playing a half step higher or lower will probably not bother the congregation and is in some ways the easiest way to transpose since the notes will mostly have the same letter-names but with sharps or flats in front of most of them. If you are not particularly comfortable playing keys like C# and Gb you may want to learn in small doses. Try a line or two in every key you can think of when you sit down to practice. Be consistent about doing it, do it often, do it in small enough doses you don't get completely frustrated, but keep at it! (and at first, do it in private, not in front of the congregation!)

change the registration:

Sometimes a simple stop choice will fix the problem. In this case, the missing note affected several stops, covering most of the Swell division, so this would not have worked.

Play something else:

most of the time changing keys will eliminate the need to play a recalcitrant note. In which case, if you aren't married to a particular musical selection, you might search for a different piece in a different key. One question to ask: are you a good sight reader? Or did you prepare a back-up selection for just such an emergency?

Make it up:

If you bag your original selection and make up a new piece of music on the spot you have complete control over what resources to use and can avoid the ones you don't have. Improvising theoretically means you can avoid any note you don't happen to want to play for any reason. Unless you get too inspired and forget!

Just deal with it:

Maybe you don't play the affected not that often and it's not really all that important, in which case you just go ahead and do what you were going to do anyway and hope nobody notices. An important question to ask, and one which distinguishes a good decision from simply ducking the issue, is just how much the music will be adversely affected.

In any case, getting around a problem involves three things: diagnosis--what exactly is the problem and how big is it? problem solving--what can I do to get around it? and three--what are my tools, my skill set, what I am most likely to do successfully? The more of these abilities you have, the more ways you can change your strategy when your original plan would not work so well. Flexibility is a life skill and needs to be practiced--continually. I told my student her homework this week was to practice this week's and next week's offertories in different keys.

I've been practicing this skill for years. I even intentionally seek out ways to overcome challenges like this so that I'll get better at it. Sometimes situations that could be easily corrected become chances to learn, like the other week when the two sustaining pedals for the keyboards at the contemporary services got reversed. I could have simply put them back, but I decided to force myself to use them in that order, reversing right and left. It meant I had to constantly think about where I was putting my foot.

Flexibility is interesting because you can never practice for it exactly. You can only practice the attitude of liking challenges, thinking over various possibilities quickly and problem solving, and then trying your best to execute in a way that is not how you prepared. For a conservatory trained musician this may be the most difficult because at the heart of our practice is the idea that constant repetition--getting the muscles and the mind conditioned to making even the smallest musical decision exactly the same way each time--is the route to success. And this group of skills is completely the opposite.

Which is what makes Sunday morning so interesting. You get to use them both!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Through a Glass darkly

A couple of weeks ago I introduced you to a set of children's pieces by Sergei Prokoffiev.  On that occasion I posted the first four and today I thought I'd reserve the blog for only one of the pieces which deserves some special comment. The entire set has 12 pieces in it.

Today's selection is the sixth one in the set and the only piece I played as a child: the rest came about when I was sorting through music in my home a month or so ago and noticed the little thin green volume lying there and had the sort of inclination I sometimes have to complete the puzzle. I used to know one of the pieces, why not learn the remaining 11? And as an adult with quite a lot more ability than I had some three decades ago, that didn't turn out to take very long. Longer than I thought it would, actually (even Prokofiev's easiest pieces are still harder than mid-level pieces by other pianists) but nevertheless, within a week I had the full recording that you can hear at your leisure over at the archives of pianonoise.

That little waltz I played at 10? 12? was also a window into the past. I mentioned last time that I didn't know anything about Prokofiev as a human being back then. I had also not encountered his music before. It was a strange sort of introduction. If you listen to it it comes across as a nice little waltz tune with some rough edges. For one reason or another the composer turns some interesting corners harmonically, and causes a sequence of musical events that are quite original to him alone. You really can't listen to anything by Prokofiev and not know it.

I didn't know anything about "wrong note" technique as practiced by Soviet-era composers (particularly Shostakovich) to suggest, subtly (survivably) that there really was something wrong with Stalin's paradise (towing the party line with a smile but letting those in the know know there was something else underneath). I also would have been completely unaware of how the 20th century looked back on other musical periods of seeming innocence with nostalgia and then ironic critique as teenagers do when they make the discovery that life is a lot more rotten in many ways than their childhood bubbles of innocence permitted them to find out. In other words, this Waltz seems to (in Prokoffiev's own phrase he used to describe some of his compositional tendencies) "step on the throat of its own song."

Why would Prokofiev do something like that in a piece for children? Besides, he wasn't living in the Soviet Union at that point; he was still in France. Was it because that hard won compositional originality was hard to put down (there are plenty of people who do put it down but think how difficult it is to be noticed in this or any era and realize how valuable a skill it is to be recognized by your own imprint)? Was it because he couldn't help making an adultly ironic commentary in the margins, not to be perceived by the kids but only their worldly wise parents? Or maybe he just was really bad at writing for children? After all, he didn't have any, and up until that point in his life he had been living an artistic life of concerts and composition, forever on tour and in the papers, dealing with impresarios and agents and adoring fans, and critics.

Far from all of that, my first, boyhood impression as that the piece was just sort of weird.

How many of us approach art like that? We don't really get it; maybe we don't have the tools to understand it. And we never proceed beyond that point. In a tragedy I've seen played out several times as an adult, the adults in charge don't really understand it either, or they don't take the time to explain it. So the puzzled youngsters are just left to make whatever they can of their experience of the products of great minds of very different times and places and circumstances and compositional techniques--adult minds. How would you expect someone young to grapple with all that?

Generally what we end up with is a little like the Roman circus. We like it or we don't. Thumbs up or down. And if we don't like it....our experience ends there.

Mine didn't, of course. I can hear a lot more in that little waltz than I used to, and I appreciate the "oddness" of it for a lot of reasons, for the familiarity of Prokofiev's voice to being grateful that he avoided so much cliche in a genre that is home to so many. It glitters, it shines, and it disturbs a little.

I can hear it now.

Prokofiev: Waltz from Music for Children

Friday, February 15, 2013

Bach vs. Telemann: A Baroque Smackdown

Sin! Everybody's favorite subject. Or not.

Still, it's hard to avoid if you spend your life working in a church setting Lutheran Chorales for choir and organ, like the two fellows whose works you are going to meet today. They've both been given the task to set the chorale "Durch Adams fall ist ganz verderbt" which is a good old text and tune dealing with the concept of Adam's fall (a.k.a "the first sin") in the 3rd chapter of Genesis. In English the title reads "Through Adam's Fall Everything got corrupted/spoiled/ruined" depending on how you translate that last verb. Personally I like "spoiled." I think our composers are ready with their selections. They were given their assignment some 300 years ago so I think they've finished by now.

In one corner, a fellow by the name of Bach. His setting of the tune is, predictably, a bit complicated. There are three layers: the tune itself, a "falling" figure in the pedal, and a "slithery" line (for the snake in the garden") in the middle, made up of the suspicious chromaticism that makes everyone musically uncomfortable. Here's what it sounds like when you put it all together:

Bach: Durch Adams fall ist ganz verderbt

In the other corner, a Mr. Georg Telemann. Telemann was a contemporary of Bach, even a family friend. Bach chose him to be the godfather of one of his kids, so they must have been fairly close.

But (in true 21st century American "reality" TV fashion) we can only have one winner! One of you will win, and the other will have to pack his quill pen and go home!

Let's see if it's Telemann. His rendering of the chorale tune is more straightforward and dramatic than Bach's. You might find it easier listening. You might even be able to dance to it (is it just me or does that opening sound a bit like the theme to Monday Night Football?) Finally, it's shorter. Here it is:

Telemann: Durch Adams fall ist ganz verderbt

So here's the question, celebrity judges: whose is the best? You can vote in the poll at the top of the page. And in the comments below, you can tell us how you feel about each of them and why you voted the way you did.

Does Bach have something to say about the nature of sin that Telemann doesn't? Is the Telemann more viscerally arresting? Is it over the top? Is there a reason he was so popular with the people of Leipzig? Or is that a bad thing? What are you listening for and do you find it?


Now for a little soap opera. Telemann eventually got a job in Hamburg, but in his younger days spent a few years in Leipzig, where he got in really good with the town council and the public, and really got on the nerves of a Johann Kuhnau, director of the city's churches. Telemann seemed to have the ability to know what the public liked, and to incorporate all the latest trends in his music, where the much older Kuhnau was a conservative who wanted all the best for his churches, and was not pleased that the charismatic Telemann formed a 40 member ensemble that siphoned off most of the best musicians in town to play operas instead of church services. When Telemann got himself installed by the town council in one of the churches not under Kuhnau's control a real turf war ensued. At one point Kuhnau fell ill and the town council was really hoping the old guy would die so they could replace him with Telemann. Nice, huh?

Fast forward 15 years. Kuhnau "finally" dies and the job is open. Telemann, who is now in Hamburg, applies, but is apparently not really interesting in moving again. Basically he uses the job offer he gets from Leipzig (because of course the council is falling all over itself to have him) to get a significant salary increase from the Hamburg officials in order to keep him at home (a little free agency from the Baroque period). Telemann, satisfied with his enormous raise, withdraws his application and another pool of applicants is auditioned. Eventually, one J. S. Bach gets the job. Meantime, one council member is quoted at a meeting saying in frustration, "well, if we can't have the best (meaning Telemann) we'll just have to settle for mediocrity (meaning, indirectly, Bach, et. al),"  thus earning the musicological evil-eye (and a lot of nasty remarks) for centuries!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


I've been reading things on the internet and talking to people recently about the motivation to practice. One blogger in particular published a post which basically told people in so many words to get off their backsides and go practice. Judging by a few responses it got this was a very useful post for a lot of people. It makes me think that there is quite a need for a motivational coach for musicians.

Then there was the conversation I had the other day in which I was told of a teacher who tells students that the hardest thing about practicing is opening the instrument case. That made me think a little.

It's been a while since I can remember really having a hard time getting myself to practice. That doesn't mean the act of practicing itself is easy, although I've done it so often and been through the learning curve with so many pieces of music that I can at least anticipate when the difficulties are going to come and talk myself through them when the way gets hard: in other words, be my own built-in motivational coach.

That wasn't always the case, and with any activity, motivation to work hard increases as results increase. In other words, when you get good at something you want to get better. If you are excited by early results you have more drive to go on. That makes the first stages the most difficult because we have the fewest results to go on, and have experienced the least success. And we are bound to have unrealistic ideas about success in proportion to work; in other words, when it doesn't come as soon as we think it will, we give up.

The blogger was dealing with some frustrated musicians who had wanted concert careers that weren't working out and didn't feel like practicing anymore. So what's your motivation? he asked. Good question. And then he made the point that it has to come from within and can't be driven by external factors.

Also a good point. I'm lucky. Most days I bound up the stairs at my church, happy to see the organ and the piano, and feel a little surge of energy when I think it's another day and a chance to improve on those pieces I'm working on. Then reality hits once I start practicing! I can usually tell how long I will have to stay with it before an even better thing happens: the piece starts to sound like music, and I stop worrying over wrong notes and start interpreting the piece, dancing it, singing it, making it seem natural and coherent and meaningful and important and exciting.  It might be a few hours, or a few days or a few weeks. In the meantime it can be pretty excruciating.

I suppose some of how I practice is driven by external factors. If I'm playing the piece in a church service in a couple of weeks I have a deadline. It's usually pretty well set, too, since it is tied to a particular service and won't work so well the following week. Or I have a concert coming up, or a rehearsal to prepare for. I've got quite a few deadlines, actually.

But often I program pieces for concerts that I'm not required to play, or explore more difficult organ music than I'm expected to play. I'm driven by more things than deadlines. One of them is curiosity  and the desire to learn more about music and what sorts of pieces are out there, to broaden my notions and my understanding. That pulls me forward. What pushes me from behind is the need to avoid boredom, which is what happens when I only do the bare minimum, play the same music year after year, keep everything as simple as I can, do nothing to challenge myself.

But all this is a far cry from just getting the case open, or stopping the television watching to go sit at the instrument. And for a lot of people, that's where the line is drawn.

I'm not quite sure what to say to you.

When I was young, I didn't like to practice, either. I didn't like to work. And practice felt like work. My mother asked me if I still wanted to play the piano. Yes. But practice? no. I wanted the results without the work, the fun without the discipline. How bizarre. What an unusual response for a human being to have, says the narrator with a smirk.

I can't say my practice habits got that much better until college. I spent some of that time goofing off in ways that helped my be as musically creative as I am today, part of it being lazy, and yes, part of the time practicing, in fits and spurts as carrots were put in front of me and I wanted certain things for myself and as I gradually matured. But it wasn't until college that a teacher really showed me how to practice; not just to lock yourself in a room for an hour and play pieces over and over, but to really engage your brain in the process. And to really sweat for it. During one lesson he said "how do you feel?" I said "like I just ran 5 miles." He said, "Great. That's exactly how it should feel." And, like running, you can gradually get addicted to that process, the feeling of working that cranial muscle for all its worth in the pursuit of ever clearer goals. But it doesn't come all at once. It comes, if it comes at all, as a result of continually striving for that ability by exercising what you've got again and again until you've got more of it, including the habit of practicing instead of not practicing. And then everything that comes after you make that decision.

I could wrap this up with some inspirational words and see if I could make you want to practice. Or maybe a virtuoso performance on the piano or organ would make you jealous or inspired enough to try it yourself. But that will only work for so long. Instead, you'd be better off thinking about what motivates you. What do you really want? And how badly do you want it? Can you tolerate periods of pain and frustration as you work out that musical gesture, measure, line, page, piece? How can you increase your tolerance? Do you have much of an inner life or do you get most of your stimulation from outside? It's amazing how much time we spend consuming--no wonder producing something at a musical instrument seems so foreign. Advertisers are lined up around the block telling us how great we'll feel consuming their product, and how all our problems will be solved the instant we purchase their service. A life in music isn't like that in the slightest--it's much harder; but on the upside, it doesn't promise the moon in big lying letters. And it can't happen all at one blow. It unfolds a phrase at a time, a decision at a time.

 Opening the case is just the start.

Monday, February 11, 2013

A blast from the here and now?

I want you to listen to something:


What does it make you think of?

For me, it's rather melancholy and tuneful, almost the sort of thing a moody heroine might play on the piano to show us she how deeply she could express her feelings in an art film. Something written by a film composer, and recently. It isn't, though.

That little bit of music comes from a piano sonata by Haydn. Haydn, who lived from 1732 to 1809, and wrote this piece sometime in the 1760s. That's a decade or so before the United States existed.

It also makes this a "classical" piano sonata, and the narrative on classical music is that it flourished during the enlightenment, at a time when the leading minds of Europe valued logic and reason, aesthetic beauty, balance, formal perfect, and so forth, above the messiness of self expression and emotional outbursts. That came with the next century.

One might also posit a connection between the authority of the kings, princes, and other potentates for whom  most musicians worked and the desire to put on an optimistic face, a sunny disposition, and not stray too far into the area of dissatisfied-sounding sounds. Perhaps. The messy Romantic century that followed did see an awful lot of revolution.

But context is (nearly) everything (and interpretation is the rest). If you listen to the entire piece, the second movement from the A Major Sonata (number 12 by both of the leading catalogs) you'll hear the formal, courtly, well-behaved steps of a minuet on both sides of what turns out to be a peculiar interlude. Do you suppose Haydn is trying to tell us something? And if so, what is it?

Or was he just bored with A major?

Here's the whole movement:

Full piece

Friday, February 8, 2013

The day the Muzak died

Perhaps you've heard--on Monday the Muzak corporation announced a name change. They are now going to be known as "Mood."

Oh, they're not going away. The concept of vaguely cool sounds that can be piped into restaurants, elevators, shopping malls, and God knows where else, is far too lucrative not to weather a simple name change. Muzak's genius was in being able to deliver the goods--the need was already there. You might be one of millions sampling their product right now.

You're not? Well, dial some up. And if you can't find any, I suppose you can hit some random button in the Pianonoise listening archive, turn the sound down so low you can barely hear it, and let it play in the background while you pay attention to something else, namely this blog. It's not a particularly good fit: there aren't any pieces on Pianonoise featuring xylophones and flutes, and most of the music was written before the middle of the last century which is where Muzak's mellow instrumental arrangements of mostly vocal tunes come in. Also, the Pianonoise webmaestro has a deplorable habit of posting recordings at different volumes, and which generally weren't really made for not paying attention to them, so they tend to get in the way of a good time, sometimes.

All of which really points to the fact that Muzak and I aren't really on the same course. My take on music is that it is generally better if you are actually paying attention to it. Artists tend to operate on that strange principle, that somehow it isn't just a commodity that you buy in bulk and throw away any unused portions.

That really is a minority position, however. Muzak's is the majority, and they've taken on at least a couple other characteristics of our modern society to boot, in a kind of mimicry that is good for business. We like things processed: Muzak delivers not so much music as music product. And we like bargains, fiscal and mental. Muzak's product is for the most part indescribably bland, and undemanding. This is good for capturing the inattention of as many people as possible.

I'm allowed to moralize on Fridays (this is the church music side of the blog) so I think I'll point out that there are a whole lot of other things people like to just have on in the background while they do whatever it is they are doing. People like to have background religion, for instance. Or background relationships. Or background work habits. Anything that doesn't appear to require much in the way of maintenance. This is the  majority stance, whether by choice, or by default, or because it is the best we know how. Anybody familiar with the 80/20 rule knows that most people in any group are pretty much along for the ride and expect those who are steering to keep the ship on course and not do anything too attention grabbing.

It doesn't really take that much imagination to see the church behaving the same way in many respects. For centuries, the language of the Mass was in a language most people couldn't understand if they tried, and the ritual, repetitive and soothing, was a reassuring background to the mass of worshipers. A few scholars could understand the words, and knew what the various costumes and props were for, but for most, it was just part of the pleasantly incomprehensible music of the faith. Which turns out to have been brilliant psychology. It is easier to rule over a mass of humanity if their brains aren't functioning too much. A few can't help it: you give them the leadership roles and hope they don't make a mess of things. And to the rest you preach peaceful submission, and confident slumber. Don't worry, we've got it covered.

Some have found it rather bland. But bland is a good way to avoid controversy. Nobody likes it too much, but there isn't that much to complain about, either. Something with personality will have adherents and detractors and be fought over; nobody cares to spend much hot breath over plain vanilla. So it is with many decisions we make in the modern Protestant church, musical and otherwise. We can't get people to agree on  green or gold or blue or red, so let's settle for a mushy gray or a middle-of-the-road brown.

And of course, when it comes to the instrumental music of the church, often the organist's responsibility, there are reams of admonitions to make sure that whatever the organist plays it won't be noticeable. Such unseemly displays of noticeableness detract from the worship of God, as if the messenger can only get in the way of the message unless his message is so bland you won't notice either of them. And so the favorite instrumental noise of the church is background music, good for elevating the mood, and not asking much of the rest of our being.

And then along comes the artist, more prophet than priest, with music that says "wake up! Look alive out there! Pay attention to the here and now! The kingdom of heaven is in your midst, not far away in the sweet bye and bye! And it's getting away! Go after it!"

Such a course is dangerous. It is like trying to wake up a slumbering bear. If you succeed...

But we are more likely to fail. The church, universal and local, has learned that it is safest to let those who want to sleep, sleep. And as a result, most of that troublesome artistic crowd has had to find work outside its walls. A mutual antipathy has built up over the last few centuries--Centuries of not really caring for each other.

Still, someone has to try it every so often, so from out in the world a cry goes up which the people of God ignore at their peril. It isn't fancy: sometimes it is no more than "pay attention! Look around!"

In the last act of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" the heroine, Emily, visiting her past after her death, realizes that she and her family were sleepwalking through a lot of life. She cries out, " are too wonderful....doesn't anybody notice?" To which the narrator answers "artists and poets, they do, sometimes..."

Sometimes. But for some reason the church often thinks of those messengers as the enemy.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Everyone's a critic (hopefully)

On Friday I posted some new (to me) organ music on this blog. Now I've had five more days to think about it and I don't like the recording very much.

Guilmant: Offertoire sur "Fillii"

Life can move pretty fast. One of my major roles in life is as church organist, which means services every Sunday, which means a new prelude and offertory every seven days. As a student in music school, we prepared one recital a year (at least until graduate school) which meant we had nine months to work on one  (hour long) program. Now I burn through that much music every six weeks or so. And that's only for church (and not even on my native instrument!). The upside to this I have have gotten pretty good at learning music quickly, and pretty well. This afternoon I was marveling at how it appears that the several selections I've programmed for Lent seem to be preparing themselves on time, including one that has yet to receive more than two days of practice but is almost ready to go. The downside is that the music is pretty raw by the time I make recordings, generally about a week before I play them live (it's pretty standard to have spent two or three days on them by recording time). Recording makes me nervous, and therefore is a particularly useful part of the learning process, I think. But it is also a bit of a high-wire act.

Why am I telling you all this? And on a Wednesday, no less (if you're wondering, on Mondays I share piano music and blog about the listening experience, on Wednesdays I blog about better music making as a pianist, accompanist, choir member, etc., and on Fridays I share and discuss church music and related issues). Because my point today has to do with what may be the most important (and difficult to achieve)  practice related ingredient of all of them. It's the one without which either of the last two topics I've discussed in this space (scale playing and repetition) are pretty useless: self criticism.

Criticism is a hard thing to have as part of your daily repertoire for the simple reason that it makes us feel bad. And many of us spend large parts of our day feeling bad about ourselves to begin with, so why make it worse?

The difference here is pretty important. What most of us engage in when we let those negative voices tell us things that make us want to give up or be jealous of others is inarticulate criticism. It's the vague sense that we just aren't measuring up--but it's vague. It doesn't tell us what we could do to improve, or how, and it doesn't leave us with a sense that there is a purposeful path we can follow to get there. It isn't realistic about whether we've invested the time and energy to get the results we want. It doesn't have an exit strategy. It just wallows. It's also a pretty natural response.

Several years ago I was giving a piano lesson and after the boy played his piece for me, I named a few things that needed improvement. Then I asked him what I'd said. He said "you said it was bad."

Oh boy.

"No I didn't," I began. In fact, I assured him, some parts of it were pretty good. But there were things that needed to get better. For instance, the hesitation between two notes here, the lack of a staccato dot there. Play it again, I said, and focus on those things and the piece will be better.

In other words, we've all got to develop a keen sense of diagnosing problems and finding ways to solve them, particularly when we don't have a teacher standing there to fulfill that function.

So here's what I'm thinking about last Thursday's recording. It is generally too slow. The tempo is 66 to the dotted quarter, actually, and I didn't have a metronome so I guessed, and I was wrong. Also, I can tell you what I was thinking on Thursday. I was thinking, I don't want to be another American organist who plays everything too fast. 66 seems like a fairly moderate tempo, and even though my gut is saying I should go a little faster, I'm going to resist that. Besides the piece is new and I could use the time to get the notes right!

In fact, I did get the notes right. I remember thinking, right after I finished playing it, that I had felt inhibited and not free enough. That the interpretation was cramped. But that I hadn't missed any notes that I knew of--that I'd covered the piece on the first take. Not bad, considering I knew perfectly well I wasn't entirely ready to play the piece for the microphone. It was part of what was making me so nervous in the first place.

Something else? The playing isn't even in the beginning. I think the tempo has a lot to do with that.

I'm not sure why, but there is a break between two pedal notes around 4:20 that I don't like. I'm not sure why that is because I was going from my left to my right foot at the time which should have made it easy to connect them. Maybe I freelanced for some reason in the heat of the moment. You may think that's a small thing but it bugs me and I intend to fix it.

Tomorrow I'm going to try again. I gave the piece a rest for a few days while I prepared two other pieces, and gave it another go yesterday. Today it is up to speed and I think generally more fluid. I'll see what I think about it after I listen to the results. Generally I like to take the time to second guess myself before I post something (because I always do) but I wanted to talk about a slice of my life and the makeup of this fascinating piece I'd just discovered and decided to share it in real time.

I won't play it in church until this coming Sunday anyhow. Meantime, another round of self-criticism has lead to more work, more discomfort, but in the end, better results. I'll let you listen to the this one as well.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The composer as a ::gasp:: human being

Back in my days at the conservatory I remember mentioning things about various composers to fellow students and being asked "how do you know so much about" x y or z. Well...I read books about composers, that's how. It was a mark of distinction, apparently--certainly not a trait that was carefully cultivated by our professors at this very specialized school for musical performers.We did have a survey course in music history at one point, but mostly, as performers, our mission was to play the music, and to play it well. Our teachers emphasized technique, and musicality as framed by paying attention to those marks in the score. There wasn't what you might call an emphasis on outside knowledge.

In fact, the very idea that knowing anything about the composer's background, biography, political or religious ideas and beliefs, habits of working, relationships and colleagues, or, to broaden the lens, to know something about the era or the culture or the social environment in which the music was produced--to know anything outside of the marks in the score itself--is, strangely, controversial. Why should we know anything at all about the music's creator? There are, and always have been, people who howl when the very mention is made.

I can see a point to that, actually. Abuses can be made in any direction, and in the case of one who wants to know something that the score itself doesn't tell you, there is always the possibility that you'll become fixated on that "extra-musical" knowledge and start seeing every Bb as an expression of the composer's feelings about X or Y and pay little attention to the staccato dots on top. The average music lover, the non-musician, often values anecdotes about the emotional lives about composers or something that will reinforce the idea that every genius has some kind of social disorder above trying to actually listen to the music itself as it unfolds. Musical structure, grammar, and logic is a lot harder to grasp than being shocked about Beethoven's hair.

But there are reasons to avoid the opposite attitude as well. Not wanting to know anything you can't find out from that particular piece of music (which might include other pieces of music as well at which point you can't use the composer's general practices to help you with an ambiguity) is also a close ally to laziness. After all, not wanting to know is also not wanting to know. Or not bothering.

Still, if you asked me if knowing that Prokoffiev smoked two packs a day makes me prolong that C# in measure 29 I'd have to tell you that's a silly question. I can't tell you that there is no relation whatever between the two, but I very much doubt it.

And yet, I can't imagine the total mass of what we can know about a composer, particularly what was in their head, how they expressed themselves in words as well as music, what their culture valued and whether they conformed to it, what sort of ambitions they had, doesn't somehow add to the picture of what to do with a general marking like "allegro"--for instance, Mozart complained about at least one person who played his piano works too quickly (in his presence). He also said that the music should "flow like oil" which probably argues for a certain suavity in passages that aren't marked staccato. It's too bad we don't have any recordings to know for sure. But personal views are something, aren't they?

Last week I found a little book from my past. It was a volume of Children's Pieces written by Sergei Prokofiev. I was assigned one of them as a child and now decided to play them all. I made a recording; the first four of the twelve pieces are below. I'll put the rest on the blog later so I can write about them (or, if you can't wait, they're up en masse over at in the "listen" section).

I couldn't help thinking about the difference in what I know about Prokofiev now, and what I knew then, which was next to nothing. For one thing, I've played enough of his music to recognize certain imprints, and to feel like an old friend is talking. I understand the harmonic twists and turns, the strange dynamic shifts, the percussive outbursts in the middle of tender lyricism--or I think I do.

I've also read a book about him. It isn't a biography. Simon Morrison has a book from 2009 that deals with Prokoffiev's later career. It deals with a strange decision Prokofiev made in 1936 to return to the Soviet Union. He had left Russia in 1918 like so many others, but unlike Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, et al, he decided to go back, and spent the rest of his life under the glare of Stalin and the bureaucratic wheels of the people who saw to it that Soviet art wasn't too "western."

Prokofiev wrote these Children's Pieces one summer at the cottage of a friend, watching children at play, and generally enjoying a peaceful existence. It was the year before his return to the Soviet Union. It may have been one of the happiest interludes in the composer's life.

Does it matter? The music is the music. But I can tell you I don't hear it the same way I did as a child. It's different now. For a lot of reasons. It would take a long time to figure out why, never mind blog about them. And that's part of the issue, I guess. There are a lot of pitfalls to knowing a composer's story. It is easy to see correlations that aren't there. Sunny pieces turn out to have been music written by suicidal composers and vice versa. Composers who write the most profound and moving masses for the church turn out to have been atheists. Someone who writes some of the best loved literature for the flute turns out to have hated the instrument. But that's the way it is with all knowledge. It doesn't reward that kind of simplicity often. The total mass, the web, of knowledge, enriches our understanding despite all the blind alleys.

Prokofiev: Children's Pieces
1 morning
2 promenade
3 a little story
4 scherzo

the next installment in the series

Friday, February 1, 2013

Easter, out of season

I've been sort of depressed lately. Here in Illinois it has been very cold and very dark for most of January, added to which my wife has been in Europe researching this month so much of the time it is just me and the cat.

On Monday an interesting thing happened. I was at the library to find a completely different piece of music when I saw a volume of organ works by Alexander Guilmant. I get uncomfortable when a book at the library stares at me so I had to do something about it. Realizing that Mr. Guilmant has a pretty big name in the world of organ literature and that I had never actually played anything by the man, I picked up the volume and started to page through it. The very first piece caught my eye. "This doesn't look very hard" I thought. It was 10 pages long--on the other hand, it seemed about the difficulty level of the Dubois Toccata, a festive and effective piece which I had discovered last summer and learned in about two days.

I took it to church and started to practice. Up until then I'd been having one of those days when nothing seems to be any fun and joy is not to be had anywhere. But this piece just leaks joy and exultation in vast quantities, and besides, with the organ going full blast (I normally learn new pieces with only a few stops and add the color once I've gotten the hang of the basics) how could my mood not be elevated?

Then I remembered that I hadn't yet decided what to play in church for next Sunday, and suddenly this seemed a good choice!

Not being one to leave well enough alone, however, I went home and did some googling and found out something about the music. It is an "offertoire" and, according to the title, it is based on "O filii et filiæ," which is an old hymn of the church--nearly six hundred years old. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia (itself celebrating its hundredth anniversary, by the way), it is a hymn that expresses the "mystery of the resurrection." Which, of course, makes it an Easter hymn, and we haven't even started Lent.

Here's the hymn tune. Listen.

The way that this hymn expresses mystery is itself curious. It is cast in the minor mode. Minor key music will play a significant role in the musical selections the choir director and I choose over the six weeks of Lent, that season of penitence and sober contemplation of sin, mortality, and all the other ponderous things some of us would just prefer to avoid. But for Easter itself, that festival of resurrection--on that day, when the triumphant shout is heard, "Christ is Risen!" and, for the first time in a month and a half :  "Alleluia!"--on that day, it is not likely the minor mode will find much of a home. And yet, here it is, in an Easter, not a Lenten, hymn.

Do you suppose that caused Mr. Guilmant any concern? I raise this question because I think it did present him with a problem, and because of the way he solved it.

The piece begins with a joyful dance in a major key. Cleverly, our composer has chosen to base that opening section, not on the first phrase of the hymn, but on the second. That's because the second lacks that tell-tale minor third that irrevocably casts the music in that mode. The second phrase, taken by itself, could be either major or minor (in fact, it's the only part of the tune that doesn't give itself away like that). Guilmant surrounds the bit of tune with major key music, and a bumpy waltz. There's plenty for the feet of the organist to do, also.

 After a minute and a half, there is a transition. The music gets quieter, and prepares us for the entrance of the tune itself, in its minor key. It starts at 2:11 and begins a series of 3 variations. Then, at 4:13, the jubilant music returns. But like any composer touching the profound, Guilmant doesn't make the minor key just disappear. About five minutes into the piece there seems to be an epic struggle which goes on for nearly a minute. The harmonic pallette keeps expanding, becoming something else again and again and refusing to just settle down into a cozy major chord.  Finally, it veers into the triumph of the opening. But right as we head into the final turn, there is the tune, pealing out one last time, in minor again! And then those last four chords--so dissonant, so tense, so agonizing. Organists love chords like these, actually, because they produce a kind of awesome, terrifying noise you can't get on any other instrument. And just as surely, they lead us to that final ecstatic shout on a G major chord which I can't help but hold for at least ten seconds.

What the composer has done, then, is to put the whole tune, with its sense of mystery, in the middle, in the heart of the piece, and surround it with music of joy and exuberance--our reaction to it.

What that fascinating speculation doesn't do, however, is give me an excuse for playing an Easter offertory on Transfiguration Sunday, the week before Lent begins. And for that, I'm going to have to get homiletic. In other words, just as pastors do, I'm going to have to reinterpret the available facts in light of new events, to give a new focus to old material. Don't look shocked. Jesus did it, too. And Paul.

The story of the Transfiguration is not only a joyful occurrence (there are some Biblical scholars who think it began life as an early resurrection story, but that is out of our depth), it is the last chance we will have to gather ourselves before the season of Lent. Suppose you didn't know where that hymn tune came from or what it is for. Might you hear the middle section, begun amidst the celebration, as a foreshadowing of the days ahead ("the Son of Man must be killed....")? Suppose we take the foreshadowing idea a little further, and use the beginning and end of the piece to remind us of the ultimate goal of that season even before we begin it. Be prepared, for the days ahead will be difficult, but after that will come the fulfillment, and what a party!

I like the idea of looking ahead. I also hope it holds water, because this is the second time this year I've played something out of season and I'm hoping they don't take away my Liturgy Licence. There is also, of course, the old justification that every Sunday is a "little Easter," even the ones in Lent, celebrations of the Resurrection. I've often thought that was more of an excuse to avoid the more painful dimensions of existence by skipping right to the good part every week, as if Guilmant had left out all of those dissonant chords before the end. But sometimes we need an Easter out of season. It helped me banish some personal darkness this week, and I hope it does some good for you, too.

Happy Easter!

Guilmant: Offertoire sur "Fillii"

(offertory based on "O sons and daughters," let us sing!)