Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Vault

I grew up in a little village, more rural than suburban, in a family that wasn't musical, in a place where there weren't many cultural opportunities. For a while I didn't really know much about what was out there. When I started to gain some proficiency at the piano with the help of my elementary school music teacher (it didn't take long to become something of a star in my little orbit, as good a player as most of the adults) I began to wonder how I could grow. First I discovered a few records at garage sales, and later, the classical radio station in the big city, 45 minutes away. It was playing great music by great composers, and I was hooked. But where to find the music?

The local music store didn't seem to offer much help. Between Mozart's "Greatest Hits" (simplified, for piano) and Mel Bay's Big Note Guitar Method, there wasn't much of a market, apparently, for the real thing in its original form, and, therefore, not much of an offering. Could I get a copy of Beethoven's Sonatas? No, they didn't seem to be able to get those. I started to develop the crazy idea that there must be a vault in Vienna where all the manuscripts of the great composers were kept and only the finest pianists were able to gain access--after all, they had to be able to make all those recordings somehow, and I sure didn't know where all that music came from!

Of course, this level of parochial ignorance isn't really that unusual. I still get questions from young people, for example, wanting to know if I happen to know the piece "Minuet." Presumably this is the first time that the young person has encountered a piece of music with such a strange title and they assume it is unique. Instead I have to explain that a minuet is a kind of dance and was once very popular among the ruling class and that lots of composers in past centuries wrote lots of pieces all with the title minuet so I can't be sure if I know which one they have in mind. Do they happen to know who wrote it? ( Why? Is that important?)

There are a handful of such pieces that have been often used in piano teaching books so I probably could make a decent guess. I can be even more confident when a future bride comes to me to play her wedding and asks for "Prelude in C." Sometimes she knows the one she wants is by Bach; in any case, most brides get their inspiration from the same basic set of sources, and that handful of pieces is well known to those of us who play weddings. So even though Bach wrote about a dozen preludes in C, I can tell which one she is talking about ("you know, the famous one."). Young or old, pieces with titles like sonata and prelude and minuet never really assume a real identity to us until we know them from more than one filtered source. Otherwise, we never make the transition from the child who thinks the food grows in the refrigerator to the adult who knows were all the stores are in town and which ones have the best produce.

Two things happened to me since my days as a youngster with limited musical food to feed on. One is that I went to college in the big city. I learned from trained concert professionals, heard some of the world's best musicians, and had access to a large library of books, scores, and recordings. It changed what I thought I knew about music.

The second thing that happened will be of more use to any young person in a small town or countryside environment who happens to be reading this. After I graduated and as I was started graduate school the internet came along and started to offer vast amounts of musical resources that I had never had before. Now I live in a university town with a huge library system and it used to be one of my favorite things to do to walk 20 minutes to the library and go find something new and interesting to play. But these days I don't even have to do that. Not five minutes after I discover the music's existence I can listen to one of the worlds' great pianists and organists, or some fellow in his living room, play the piece while I look at the score, then download it, print it, and take it to the piano or organ to start learning it. I just happen to be old enough to regard this as an amazing thing. Someone younger would probably think: well, it's always been this way. What's the big deal?

Most trained musicians know about the International Score Library Project, which is a huge library where people around the world upload scores of all kinds of public domain music. This is a long way from having about two choices in the "classical" section. Composers you have never heard of are there, and so are dozens of different versions of pieces you already know.

The difficultly with such a resource is not in being unable to find something, it is in not knowing the quality of what you have found. One of the things we learned from our teachers in music school was which editions of which composers were regarded as most reliable and which ones had editors who liked to inject their own ideas about the music without telling anyone.

The music is free for the downloading, and it is almost certain that you will find anything you know to look for. That will only get you part of the way there, of course. If you live in a place without good teachers (or people who know who good teachers are) you are still going to suffer. But the internet has some answers to that also. People post advice, and contact information, and even give lessons over Skype, daily.

It is enough to make me wonder how things would have been different had I been born later. I don't know. Anyhow, it wasn't the Dark Ages. We already had CD players. I once learned Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata by ear before I knew how to get the music. Such isolation can tend to develop other skills.

As for sorting one's way through the resources, I'm planning to help you with that. Just stay tuned (as they used to say on television, that 20th century device I don't use anymore because all the old and new shows are one the internet now).

By the way, I've been to Vienna. I've seen all the shrines to the composers, with velvet ropes around the exhibits and plaques on the wall.Most of the furniture isn't there any more. And the contents of that vault that I thought was there--the vault has exploded; the contents are everywhere!

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