Friday, June 28, 2013

Who cares if you listen?

I've borrowed the title of Milton Babitt's controversial 1959 article to continue my discourse on the listening to organ music in church. Last week I attempted to mount a defense for why not talking over the music of the organist in a worship service can actually be a good thing, despite the prevailing rhetoric about organists with big egos simply trying to show off and wreck the whole spirit of the service if any attention is given to them for a few minutes.

But the issue gets complicated. Last week I stumbled across a remark made by a fellow organist with regard to a colleague of his who had played a Mendelssohn organ sonata in church that morning and wondered on Facebook if anyone had noticed. The organist commented on his blog something like "dude! They're not there to hear you."

I would like to suggest to organists like him, and pastors with similar attitudes that that is not a particularly effective way to support a colleague. Particularly as I think that the organist had probably done quite a bit of work (a Mendelssohn organ sonata is not easy) and was probably having a sort of crises wherein one wonders, after all of that, whether one's efforts have made any difference to anyone. There is a good chance, for example, that the organist (who may not be listed either in the church bulletin or on their website) is unable to list his or her musical selections anyplace that an interested congregant could know what the piece was, and was required to play to a room filled with people talking and moving about. When the music grew quiet it is quite possible (having had this experience myself) that the organist couldn't even hear the music themselves, never mind anyone else hearing it.

Human beings in general tend to have pretty large empathy deficiencies so it never hurts to explain how a thoughtless comment can be hurtful. In this case, the organist who made the comment was simply parroting rhetoric that he received from his superiors, rhetoric that, as is typical in such cases, is technically true, but is used in practice to put people "in their place." That is, it is true that the organist is not the point of the church service but not true that actually hearing their contributions to the service can have no use in worship.

But the organist who made the remark would also not have been capable of playing such a sonata (some Youtube postings made this clear) and it is worth noting that organists of lesser abilities often don't want to be listened to because it makes them nervous and they'd rather not deal with those nerves. In such cases the organist and a church which takes such an attitude of non-listening are well matched. Organists of the able-to-play-Mendelssohn type tend to prefer to deal with nerves. It isn't that we don't have them.

I in fact get nervous whenever I know I am being listened to. I have always assumed that was the price one paid for the privilege of sharing music with other people. It is not a fun experience quite often; nevertheless it is essential. For me, musical wallpaper can't engage you. Besides, it is such a privilege to hear and to play wonderful music like that--or it should be. Too bad many of us stumble through life like spiritual zombies. Part of the artist's job is to wake people up to the world around them. Which is easier to do when they pay attention. Have you seen Monty Python's "Life of Brian?" It's a bit like all those prophets shouting their messages in the city gates: nobody is listening. Seems a little defeating.

I would suggest to pastors and priests that they not treat their organists like the faucet in their kitchen which pours forth water when they turn it on but is otherwise not thought about much (except when it doesn't work) and instead support their organist by listening to the music, asking them to talk about the music, or put explanatory notes in the bulletin (:gasp:!) and take the opportunity to learn from a colleague who has specialized knowledge in a different area. Respect flows both ways, and it is more likely to come from those you treat as if they had important work to do on Sunday. Obviously this will also include playing for hymns and liturgy. But if your organist is talented it need not be limited to that. You won't want them to play a concert every week in church but you can certainly encourage them to use their gifts in the service of God. I think he created music as well as words.

Of course, pastors tend to be divided over the issue as well. Sometimes it is because those who are less gifted tend to be threatened by an organist who is getting attention of any kind; particularly if the congregation loved their musical selection that morning. I would suggest to an organist that they sometimes forego the opportunity to play something flashy exactly so things don't start to look like a popularity contest. There are plenty of wonderful musics that your congregation won't like all that well, but that are good for their musical (and spiritual) development. Keep that in mind as you strive for a balanced menu each week. And make a point of listening to your pastor's sermon as well!

*apparently my spell-checker needs to be educated in the importance of noticing organists as human beings as well. It thinks the term "organists" ought to be spelled "organisms." I tell you, we do exist! We are real creatures! With personalities (some of the time). And lives on the side, even.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

"Getting" Gottschalk

In order to play any composer's music well, you have to have some understanding about what makes them tick musically. Any clues you have to their artistic personality are of help. I say this, well aware that some people are under the impression that all the appropriate marks are on the page and all you need to do is to follow them. I have no problem with the marks on the page, but they are incomplete. This is often because a composer just assumed people would follow the standard practice of their time and place and thus constantly reminding people to do something they were going to do anyhow seemed unnecessary. But marks can also lead you down the wrong path. I remember preparing to play a Sonata by William Albright back in graduate school. There were so many instructions in English--almost every note had some kind of adjective under it in some spots--that I assumed he was going to be really detail-oriented and a perfectionist, and maybe even somewhat of a control freak. Then I met him and he coached me on how to play his piece. Basically, he told me to just go for it. This was the complete opposite of what I had been expecting.

Pianists should have this kind of problem every day. If the attack on Mozart's instrument was much cleaner and decayed much faster than our modern Steinway, is a detached articulation appropriate for any place in the piece that doesn't say otherwise? And just what did Schubert mean when he used a wedge instead of a dot. Or was he even sure himself?

The reason I bring this up is because I'm giving a concert on Sunday of the works of Louis Moreau Gottschalk and I've been dealing with this sort of thing all month. Now, let's be honest, Mr. Gottschalk's compositions aren't on the level with Mozart and Schubert, but they are quite original, and rather interesting. They are not quite as difficult to play as they sound, but they do give you quite a workout. And, although Gottschalk himself was rather anxious about making sure people played his works the way he thought of them, some understanding of what he was going for--some imagination--is required to bring them about.

For instance, Gottschalk is often striving for effect. What sort of effects? Well, try this one on for size. It is a spot from "Union: Paraphrase on National Airs." Now, the score looks like this:

And if somebody didn't understand that he was trying to imitate the sound of marching soldiers on the piano they might play it like this:


When in fact, the passage, played correctly, goes something like this:


How do I know this? The score has the instruction "pianissimo"--good, we know to play it soft. But how cleanly should I articulate the notes? There isn't anything to indicate that. No staccato, no legato, no slur, nothing.

In fact, the score does indicate "drums" but what kind? Snares? Extremely articulate. What about muffled bass type drums? just the opposite. Choose the wrong kind and you spoil the effect.

I've always thought that the effect was really one of a regiment of soldiers marching. The minute you think of that, you realize that you should not have a precise, clean sound, but an indefinite cluster. The notes should cease to sound like notes and become more of a noise. Get it right and the effect makes your hair stand up. Oddly, the way the notes look in the score puts us off the trail in this case. But then, how else could a 19th century composer notate such an effect?

Gottschalk's music is full of things of this nature. Those of the trumpet call, or the plucking of the banjo, or some kind of whistling sound up on the high end of the piano (Gottschalk's favorite register) are just a few. And he clearly loves the ticklish sound of rapid, delicate passagework. I mean, what else is the following passage doing sandwiched between variations on one of the tunes from his piece "Bamboula" where the action just stops dead for a few moments and we get this little pianistic figure that goes nowhere?


He just repeats the gesture a few times, enchanted with the sound, and then afterward dives right back in where we left off! Compositionally it is of no use whatever--I'm sure Brahms would have chopped it right out. But it is pretty--if you want it to be. If you dispatch it like the structural waste of time it is, that is exactly what it will sound like. We have here a paradox--and an opportunity to stop and smell the pianistic roses.

One of the comments that Gottschalk often got was that the piano didn't sound like a piano when Gottschalk played it. Instead, it seemed to transcend its limitations as a percussive box with levers. It didn't just sing like the European Romantics--it gave rise to a variety of interesting effects. That has to be clear. Someone who is just there to play the notes and follow the instructions would never get all the "poesy" as he called it; the inspiration, the rhapsodic fantasy would be gone.

Still, Gottschalk did worry about his instructions being ignored. One of the pieces I'm playing on Sunday, the shortest and simplest, comes with a prologue from the author in which he warns about "substituting [one's] own thoughts for those of the composer." These, he warns, will "inevitably interfere with the general effect." He must insist, therefore, that the rhythms on the page be followed precisely.

And that is really the point. Not to substitute ideas in place of instructions given, but to understand what is behind them, and then to be able to really make the piece sound like intended, following the spirit, not just the letter, of the musical law.

In conclusion...

Monday, June 24, 2013

Some "Notes" for the concert

In preparing for this Sunday's concert (3 P.M. at Faith UMC in Champaign, Illinois, if you are interested) here are some more materials I've been finding in my "research:"

Louis Moreau Gottschalk was one interesting fellow. Perhaps I've mentioned that already. According to the likes of Chopin, Liszt, and Berlioz, he was quite a composer and pianist in his teens, well before he found employment as a concert pianist in the middle of the American Civil war. By this time he had also achieved success touring South America. North America was his third continent, and he was still in his early thirties. Nevertheless, touring here was not a simple matter. There was that small matter of a war. In addition:

 "Adrian, Michigan. Infamous concert! [I made only] Seventy-eight dollars! The people say that they prefer "a good Negro show." They are furious at the price of admission--one dollar. A singular American characteristic! They insult us as if we forced them to pay....One dollar admission! It is the universal theme."

And of course, things got pretty monotonous.

"Everything is foreseen, everything is marked out, in my peregrinations. Thanks to the experience of my agent, I know in advance, within a few dollars, the amount of the receipts in a town of a given number of inhabitants. I know, with my eyes shut, every one of the inextricable cross-threads that form the network of railroads with which New England is covered....In my black suit at eight o'clock I salute my a quarter to nine they encore the Murmures eoliens. At half past nine they call again for the Berceuse, ten I carry off my patriotic audience to the belligerent accents of the Union fantasia; and at half-past ten I throw myself, exhausted and depoetized, into the prosaic arms of the blessed Morpheus...."

Of course, he could be pretty dramatic about it:

"Solitude, for me, is repose--is the absence of the thousand distractions of this unquiet, giddy existence to which my career of nomad artist condemns me. In solitude, in reveries, and in contemplation I find fertile sources of inspiration....Only then am I myself....For myself, who, because of a sickly and nervous nature, always have a propensity to melancholy, the stirring and noisy existence that the career of nomad virtuous imposes on me is that to which I have the greatest antipathy."

But for all that, the only thing worse than having to play was not being able to play:

"O human inconsistency! The piano, which has been a torment for me all week, possesses for me today (on a Sunday, when Sabbath laws forbade most activities) an irresistible charm. It is the charm of forbidden fruit, for, although it is permitted (by going to the bar through the back door) to take an indefinite number of brandy, whiskey, or gin cocktails, to play on the piano, except under certain psalmodic restrictions, is positively prohibited.  The harp perhaps might be tolerated—for David played on the harp—but the piano, fie!" 

Gottschalk goes on to relate a colorful incident from years earlier:

"...One Sunday at Cape May I sat down to practice a polka--the Forest Glade--which I was then composing. Just as I began, a violent thunderstorm burst of the hotel, and at the first flash of lightning several ladies and a clergyman, seen in the storm an unmistakable sign of divine wrath, came rapping at my door, imploring me to stop my profane, though anything but tempestuous, music. I now remember the scandalized countenances of those worthy people too distinctly to venture again on any such experiment."

Colorful anecdotes like this are part of what make Gottschalk such a good read. Even in the middle of the panic before Gettysburg, with the town in an uproar over the oncoming Confederates, and Gottschalk himself worried about capture or getting his pianos destroyed, he has to stop and make fun of a volunteer band in the town square:

"A voluntary military band (the only one in Williamsport) draws up in battle array on the principal square; is it necessary for me to say that it is composed of Germans (all the musicians in the United States are Germans)? There are five of them.  A cornet a piston with a broken-down constitution (I speak of the instrument), a cavernous trombone, an ophicleide too low, a clarinet too high, a sour-looking fifer—all of an independent and irascible temper, but united for the moment by their hatred of keeping time and their vigorous desire to cast off its yoke.  I must confess that they succeeded to such an extent that I am doubtful whether they played in a major or minor key." 

Gottschalk notes that in every audience there is, in addition to the "pretty battalion" of boarding school girls who have come to sigh over his sentimental compositions, which they all know by heart and can play (sort of), there is "the local Beethoven," with "uncombed hair, bushy beard, the amenity of a boar at bay to a pack of hounds. I know this type; it is found everywhere...It is time that many unknown musicians should be convinced that...soap is not incompatible with genius, and it is now proved that the daily use of a comb does not exercise any injurious influence on the lobes of the brain."

He has, of course, to please his public, much of which is from small towns, which is not going to make him any friends with the established musical culture in the large cities. But even he is disappointed to note that "the ears of many people are so little exercised that they recognize only two or three songs they have known from birth....and...there must be only the melody, without harmony, without variations, absolutely naked, as a fifer would play it, for them to recognize it. They least artifice, the least ornament, they lose the thread, are confused, and the complaints begin that there is no melody."

It is a difficult crowd to please at times, but then, their musical experience is not profound. In some cases, Gottschalk's recital is the first time anyone in his audience has ever heard a piano recital before. And sometimes...."The other evening, before the concert, an honest farmer, pointing to my  piano, asked me what that 'big accordion' was. He had seen square pianos and upright pianos, but the tail bothered him. Eight or nine days ago , at Zanesville, a charming young girl and her honorable mamma spent the whole concert watching my feet. They did not know the use of the pedals and saw in my movements only a kind of queer trembling and odd, rudimentary dance steps that for two hours and a quarter afforded them an inexhaustible source of amusement."

Gottschalk is trying to be nice about it. He knows you can't make fun of your audience if you want their adoration, and their dollars. (Don't make fun of Zanesville. My grandmother use to live kind of nearby.) Besides, he is a pioneer. How much can you expect? And, within a few years, he writes "I am daily astonished at the rapidity with which the taste for music is developed and is developing in the United States. At the time of my first return from Europe I was constantly deploring the want of public interest for pieces purely sentimental; the public listened with indifference; in order to interest it, it became necessary to astound it; grand movements, tours de force, and noise alone had the privilege in piano music....from whatever cause American taste is becoming purer, and with what remarkable rapidity....We should all, however narrow may be our sphere of action, bear our part in the progressive movement of civilization, and I cannot help feeling a pride in having contributed within the modest limits of my powers in extending through our country the knowledge of music."

In the meantime, he has to put up with strange critiques like the one from the lady in Auburn who said 'What a deafening racket he makes with his piano.  There is no music in it.' I have often heard others speak of it, who said that I always played too softly and that I did not make enough noise.  O critics! You would be very annoying if you were not so amusing!"

Then there is the bad food in the hotels, the wake-up call which consists of banging a gong at six in the morning (he hates that!) the superstitious and sometimes vituperative behavior of the people he meets en route, not to mention the time his train is buried in snow for a couple of days, or when the priest at Sunday Mass can't stay in one key, or when he nearly gets arrested for not paying the hall deposit before his concert in a small town, or when he goes to take a nap in a rear car on the train and discovers he is surrounded by embalmed bodies!

We know all of this, of course, because Gottschalk wrote it all down, in twelve notebooks he kept with him as he travelled, which became "Notes of a Pianist," published by his sister after his death. Even his method of describing them is entertaining:

"I am fond of my notebooks...they never leave me. They are like an intimate companion for me, a mute confidant who has an immense advantage over all the railroad friends I ever have met, that of hearing me without my being obliged to strain my voice over the sharp summits of the highest note, as it listens to me and never interrupts me. It is discreet (of what friends could as much be said?) to the extent that, had you under your eyes the ten or twelve notebooks that I have filled from the Mississippi to the St. Lawrence, and from New York to the Mormon Desert, they would take great care to prevent you from discovering anything other than undecipherable hieroglyphics; every one of their pages looks like the side of an obelisk. The jolts of the road and the haste with which I write assist, it is true, marvelously in making them discreet."

It probably also helped that they were originally in French!

In any case, Gottschalk's notebooks have provided much amusement, much companionship and camaraderie  and, of course, great material for a (lecture) concert--much more, in fact, than would fill many concerts.

Next week, Gottschalk turns war correspondent in Pennsylvania before the Battle of Gettysburg. 

Friday, June 21, 2013

My Weekly Sermon

Last week I reviewed the previous academic year's season of activity at the organ by recalling music I had played as part of worship services at my church, complete with linked recordings and a running total of how many pieces I'd played from various centuries and countries. I wasn't that sure you'd be interested: it might have seemed a bit self-indulgent. Still, by hitting the play buttons next to the various pieces I'd chosen to highlight you could have had a half-hour organ concert if you wanted one, and maybe even discovered some music you liked, which seems like there was a fair chance you'd get something out of it.

It was a necessary and useful exercise for me, partly because I needed some time to process all of that activity while I'm resting between seasons of intensity, and also because I wanted to look back at what I'd done and reflect on that as well as think about what sorts of things I ought to keep in mind for next year. In my choices of repertoire, did I overemphasize or neglect any particular time or place; what sorts of new things did I discover this year and where might my investigations be of use in order to continue to bring good and timely music to my congregation?

I consider that an important activity. And for the past two years I've managed to record at least one piece each week that I'm playing as part of the weekend services so you can hear it as well . From September through May you can go to the Godmusic page on my website and not only see what piece(s) I'm playing this week, but hear me playing it and usually read whatever commentary I've put in the bulletin to help make the music relevant to the the people of my church, not to mention to explain why I've chosen that particular selection for that week's service. For it is indeed a part of the service, and is intended to be a support to everything else that is going on, including the pastor's sermon, the scripture, the hymns, and so on. In some respects it is like my weekly musical sermon, although unlike the pastor I usually haven't written it myself.

There are two things that are unusual about that. One is that I post my weekly offerings on the internet. As of today I still haven't come across evidence that any other church organist is doing the same thing. Their offerings certainly aren't posted on church websites. You can generally find the pastor's sermon, but often there is no evidence that they even have an organist, nevermind that person's effusions.Perhaps churches who record their entire services happen to have organ music as a part of it, but I've never seen the organ music itself on offer, especially as it is likely to be the organist himself who has to make the recording. Given the difficulties of preparing and recording a piece each week I can see why it isn't done so often.

But another reason for that invisibility as it relates to church music (and not music for the concert hall) is that this is one of the places that battle lines have been drawn in the church. Should the organist's solo musical offerings be heard? Or should we just talk over them and/or head for the door while they waft the air in a vain attempt to set the mood?

I obviously incline to the former position, given the way I've assembled my rhetoric. But a lot of folks (often of the pastoral variety) do not agree. In fact, arguments advanced against such a thing often have the effect of  putting the organist in a situation where there is really nothing they can say that won't make their opponent's case for them (which is pretty typical from a "this is the way people argue things" point of view, actually). I'm going to give it a go anyway. I can't recall any organist trying this and it's about time somebody did.

Often the argument against organ music being paid any sort of attention to is that that is simply getting in the way of worship, and that it is only the organist's ego that prompts him or her to want the music to be heard, that the organist must think they are the whole show if they want people to hear them. This is a very disingenuous argument.

For one thing, the pastor typically holds the floor, front and center (and often raised above the crowd) for at least 20 minutes and I don't recall hearing this made a case of supreme ego. Add to that that the liturgist, the person giving the children's sermon (if there is one), the choir, even the person making the morning announcements--all these parts of the service proceed in relative silence so that the congregation can actually hear what is going on. Now a case could be made that a sermon is not technically an act of worship (an argument I've heard to disqualify organ music from being part of a church service); it is really a place to stop the worship service and give an edifying talk, a word of instruction, something to reflect on, tools to interpret the scripture passage we've just heard (or just to tell you what you are supposed to think about it), but not really worship. That's ok. I'm not suggesting we abandon the sermon. I'm just saying there might be some common ground between the clergy and the organist.  How might a pastor feel if they were expected to give their sermons to rooms full of people talking over them? It isn't very likely anything that they had to say would have a beneficial effect on people who couldn't even hear them!

And yet, were we to use the same argument on the clergy we would simply tell them that the congregation wasn't there to hear them talk any more than to hear the organist play and that they needed to get over themselves. There are bigger things going on in a worship service, after all.

Now I think it is quite true that neither the organist nor the pastor is the point of a church service. But we generally feel that the work of the pastor aids us in worship, and his or her words are not simply opportunities to show off, but to help the congregation understand and experience and discover spiritual matters from a new angle, to grow in their faith. Why is it not possible that the same could possibly be true in the case of the organist? It is, of  course, possible that your organist is really an egomaniac who lives to be worshipped and uses the music and the service itself as an excuse to get approbation, but that occasional abuse does not demolish the whole argument, which is really just a plea for empathy, after all. There is, in fact, significant ground between being a self-centered prima donna and the completely anonymous provider of mainly ignored musical product: namely wanting to be treated with the same respect as every other person who contributes to the service. True, a significant portion of the organist's job is to lead hymns, accompany anthems, play quietly during prayers, or tell people with a few loud chords it is time to head for the door, but like a pastor whose medium is words, not everything he or she does needs to be participatory. We have corporate prayers, liturgical responses--and sermons. Also we witness baptisms, new members being created, and prayer concerns spoken aloud. We don't all use our voices at the same time all the time. Sometimes we listen. That isn't all bad.

In fact, part of the reason I was totaling up the eras and countries in the pieces I have played in the past year to see about balance and neglect was because I think part of my job is to introduce people to some of the vast cloud of musical witnesses this 2000 year old church has, to keep people from simply listening to instrumental versions of their own favorite hymns over and over, just as our choir director chooses a variety of styles and eras in the hymns we sing. It keeps us from simply dealing with what we already know and like and gets us thinking that maybe the church is a bit bigger than that, and that maybe we are here to worship a God of a really large creation and not simply our small selves.

So an act that many assume proceeds from the motives of a self-centered and self-seeking organist can actually be a road to opening us all up to each other, living and dead, and getting us away from narrow provincialism and the assumption that we should always have things the way we want them. Instead of the focus being on self, these musical excursions can do just the opposite and actually take one away from the self.

How's that for ironic?

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Is Consistency Evil?

With just 10 days to go before my next recital (which is on Sunday, June 30th in Champaign, Illinois, if you are interested--more details here) I now have a new set of things to worry about, as I should. Today it's not about whether or not I can play the music (mostly) or have it memorized (mostly), it's about whether it will go well in front of an audience, and whether those little technical slips I make here and there can be banished and with enough confidence that when the chips are down they will stay banished. The way to take care of that is with practice, and more practice. Concentrated practice--and repetition.

Along this little journey I've shared a few bits from Mr. Gottschalk's life, some looks at how I practice, worries about how little time there is to prepare, and next week--I promise--more about why this project is so interesting, as we get closer to show time. For me, as much fun as this was and will be, a lot of time is spent in the arena of the distinctly not-so-fun. In fact, I'm starting to get a little tired of what I'm playing, having heard the music so many times just in the past few weeks. I'm starting to be able to sympathize with Mr. Gottschalk, actually, when he writes of the numbing repetitiveness of touring in his "Notes of a Pianist:"

"All notions of time and space are effaced from my mind...if you ask me what time it is, I will reply, 'It is time to close my trunk' or 'It is time to play The Banjo' or 'It is time to put on my black coat.' These three events are very nearly the whole of my daily existence. I console myself by thinking that I am not the only one of my species."

Of course, I'm not traveling thousand of miles by train every day--I'm not even on tour at the moment; I'm here in the comfort of my own back yard. I shouldn't complain. But I do envy him a little; he must have played "Banjo" so many times he could just walk out on stage and nail it (fantastic jumps, repeated notes, and all) with no practice (which he probably didn't get anyway while on tour, never mind spending 18 hours on a train in the freezing cold and then having to play all of a sudden). But then, he'd been playing it for at least a decade by then, and he had played it an awful lot of times.

Which brings me to tonight's grand question--(I love being able to pose the grand questions)--what is it about the nature of consistency that people love to hate so much?

There used to be a television commercial in which the announcer opined that "amateurs practice until they get it right; professionals practice until they can't get it wrong!" Over the last few days even the most intractable portions of the most difficult pieces on the program are starting to go pretty well--I'm getting it right, finally. The question is, can I keep at it until I can't get it wrong, no matter what I feel like at 3 in the afternoon on a Sunday (and having played three church services and with a two hour choir rehearsal to look forward to I probably won't be at my rested best)? How many times will it take, and what sort of mental conditioning will I have to do to make sure it comes off no matter what? After all, I can't assume that after an hour of practice, feeling rested and with no audience, anything I can get right will automatically transfer itself to the concert. I've been around the stage too long to fall for that.That road keeps going, and the hill gets steeper as you ascend.

But consistency is hard. In anything. And not very glamorous, which makes it all the harder to achieve. Anybody can roll out of bed and decide to train for a Marathon. In fact, the first day or two, the very excitement of possibly being able to achieve this great thing might keep you going through all the hurting muscles. And at the race itself, with all the people running alongside you, and the festive atmosphere, and the close proximity of achievement--these are all powerful motivators. But what about in between, when you are just sore, and you've been training for a couple of months already and the race is still several months away and it's a Tuesday morning and it's hot or its lightly raining, or the hill is kind of steep and nobody is watching you anyway and you really don't feel like it...that's when you are really running the Marathon. That's when you are really training your mind to be able to do it and do it well no matter what obstacles come your way. That's when you are conditioning your muscles to handle the distance and your mind to know what it is supposed to feel like every step of the (sometimes agonizing) way, and your will to overrule your desire for comfort and taking the easy route. And nobody really cares. And the results won't show themselves for months. And you have to do it anyway, because it won't happen any other way. Just makes you want to jump up right now and do it, right? Can I sell it or what?!

This difficulty might, in theory, bias people against it. I mean, most of us aren't really into all the sacrifice it takes to do something really well really often. We can conceive of maybe doing it once, or under the right circumstances. That's what got me thinking about all of those stories, television shows, movies--ones where the underdog beats the big bully. In Star Wars the big bully is the Empire, and Luke Skywalker blows up the Death Star because he closed his eyes and really focused for that one miracle shot that instantly destroyed everything the bad guys had been building for years. Actually, that line he delivers earlier in the movie about shooting womp rats back home shows he has been practicing a little, and adds a bit of realism to the achievement if you're paying attention, but still--it's in that one moment that everything pays off.

I was watching a sitcom recently where two guys were in a boxing match and the good guy was predictably getting destroyed by the much better trained bad guy and finally the good guy throws that lucky punch like you know he will when the bad guy is too busy gloating to block and it knocks him flat all in one blow. This isn't new, it goes back at least to David and Goliath, when David fells the Philistine with one shot of his sling because there is no way he would have survived hand to hand combat. Also he gets to avoid to taint of seeming too much like a professional.

I can see where they're coming from. Because "The Banjo" is starting to seem less interesting than is was, and I'm still working out the details, bit by bit, laborious minute by laborious minute. I have to remind myself what I loved about playing it in the first place, back when it was rough and raw and I could hear music in it even if no one else would have if I'd played it for them. But that's the cost of getting it right, and six months from now I can listen to it again after I haven't played it in a while and enjoy what I was able to to do with it--to make it mean something--even if I practically have to suck all the joy out of it in order to get it there. It's not for me now, anyway. It's for my audience.

I can't compress everything into a 30 second video montage with inspirational rock music in the background. That works in the movies, not in life. I've got to be in the practice room every day working it out. So I am. Ten days from now it will matter.

In the meantime, I'm kind of enjoying this perverse fun. It's a skill. You have to really learn how to keep your sanity, and keep it fun. Sometimes its like trying to get meat out of lobster tail. But you know, I'm sort of a strange fellow, and it works for me.

So for now it's all about the training. I'll try to make sure at the concert you don't notice. I won't even complain about it. We'll just enjoy the music together. But I had a teacher once who told how a woman came up to him and complimented him on his playing and said, "you must have suffered a lot!" and he said "you have no idea!"

Right now I think I know what he means.


Monday, June 17, 2013

Only six things at a time, please!

With less than two weeks to go before my recital on June 30th, I ought to be a little worried. I only really started practicing for it two weeks ago, which will make this a new record for inahurrianism. (That's right, when you're in enough haste you can't be bothered to think of words that already exist; you just mak'em up as you go.)

And yet today I spent my entire practice working on one piece, one of two that isn't yet memorized, or, for that matter, practiced. It is one of the slow tunes (so is the other) and I have played it publicly before (two and a half years ago) so I saved it for the end. The remaining piece is shorter, simpler, and can be played with music if necessary because it is easy to turn the one page. After a while I could feel two things had happened: one, that I was able to play the piece well beginning to end, and another, that I was starting to hear passages of it in my mind and see my fingers working even when away from the piano. If my mind is starting to "photograph" the piece, then it has been a good day. My subconscious will match my conscious efforts, and in a few days I should have it all from memory. That makes it worth dropping the entire rest of the program for a day to make sure my mind could focus on it. If I had played the rest of the program as well it would have interfered with my efforts at assimilating this one, and, since the other pieces are in reasonable technical shape, I can afford a day or two. They do still need quite a bit of polish, though.

I don't have a recording of the piece yet. It is Gottschalk's Cradle Song, which he must have liked since he mentions it eight times in his "Notes of a Pianist." (which is more than any other piece that I've noticed) But I will leave you with a recording--premature though it is--of his "Pasquinade," another piece from the program. I recorded it last Wednesday while I was recording examples for a previous blog installment. I just left the microphone on and tried out a few pieces. It was instructive, not simply because I can then listen to whether or not my interpretive ideas of the piece are working (some aren't yet) but because microphones make me nervous and this is also a good way to reinforce execution under pressure--like testing a piece with an audience. The next day it always sounds so much freer and more fluid.

For what it's worth, here it is. See you Wednesday.

Gottschalk: Pasquinade

Here's the post from the aforementioned Wednesday

Friday, June 14, 2013

The year in Review

While the church year stretches from December through November, the active year runs September through May. For a large portion of my life I have been experiencing this rhythm as one enormous breath, in and out, relax a bit in the summer months, and head back for another intense academic year, beginning with the opening ceremonies of September, punctuated by Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, and finishing, exhausted, in June. Now that another such spasm of activity is in the rear view mirror, I need to process it--and, eventually, get a little rest.

Much of the year has gone by in the rush. The hymns, the anthems, the service music, perhaps remembered, perhaps not--we may visit some of it again next year as we plan. But the music I played on the organ for the services has been preserved because I recorded it myself--we don't record our services--which has the happy effect of reminding me, well after the fact, what some of that rush was about. For many congregants, what the organist plays is of no significance in a service, but to me, those musical offerings are an opportunity to offer to the community some of the best musical thinking of the past several centuries, from various parts of our great tradition, as well as the here and now. Fortunately, some in my congregation think so, too. More on that another time. For now, I pause on the landing to offer again some of the music I played this year. It is out of context this time, but it can live again in a new skin.

In September we kicked off in a celebratory mood--often the week the choir returns is an occasion for high church. I discovered a fun little French Toccata by Dubois over the summer. I have since discovered a handful of these flashy Toccatas, which are not hard to play and sound so very festive. The next week it was a piece by Michael Praetorius called (in English) "Praise the Lord, O My Soul." Notice that the first week was French, from the 19th century, the second week German, from the dawn of the 17th. We'll be keeping score. I don't like to linger in one era or national for too long, though the transitions aren't always quite so quick. One thing I like to note about the Praetorius is that, as a trained pianist (with an advanced degree) but an untrained organist, I really discovered a lot of new organ literature this year--most of what I played was new to me. And I learned a good bit about how to make the organ sound differently (registration). I had a little help--I read a couple of books and asked a few questions, though mostly it was through experimentation. I happen to like the interesting combination in the second part of this piece, achieved by double the flutes above and below (There is a button or knob for just about anything you can think up on an organ, the trick is to think to use it, and to use it wisely.).

One of the difficulties with this year is that I got sick four times (a new record?), twice in the fall, a month apart. Thus the middle of the semester consisted of piece less ambitious than originally planned. But at least I had a plan B and muddled through. I should mention that on World Communion Sunday I played from a another set I discovered over the summer of 10 communion meditations by a living Scottish organist, Evelyn Stell. I particularly enjoy the pieces because while they are very easy the music is also good (I can't say that about many another simple piece of music) and so I get a week to relax (and practice ahead) and not feel the least embarrassment about not playing anything more complicated. When it is well said it does not need to be hard.

Thanksgiving rushed on past, and I played a few weeks of music on the piano--I think this is a new low. There was no piano whatsoever in the spring semester. A piece by my french cousin Marteau based on the hymn "Now Thank We All Our God," came the week before one of my unusual selections: the first movement from the Sibelius piano sonata--rare, not liturgical, and beautiful. I forget now what was the point in playing it, but I know it was meant for a particular week and for a particular reason.

Then Christmas. This year, some short, delightful Noels by the 18th century Frenchman Claude-Louis Daquin. Here's one, it's his number VII.

I mentioned the need for variety, particularly as it reminds us that we are a part of something much larger than ourselves, but I think this year may have been dominated by Frenchmen. We'll see in a moment when I do the final tally.

The spring semester was certainly very french. I did something rather odd for Transfiguration Sunday and played an offertoire based on an Easter hymn (by Guilman), then spent Lent working my way through something English (20th century), Italian (18th) and the biggest project of the year, to play two of Cesar Franck's monumental organ Chorales in back to back weeks during Lent.

After that all I have the heart to include are the pieces I played on Pentecost, by living Lithuanian composer Vidas Pinkevicius (Veni Creator Spiritus), and the final "hymn to exhaustion" (my title, not his), a piece celebration summer and renewal (in every sense) by Brahms, (It gives my heart joy....)

This is the first year I managed to record absolutely every week's selection--last year I came close but missed a few in the rush. (It is also the first year I managed to make time to write up a year in review!) The complete rundown is available as an archived page at here.

Now the count, because I am curious. By era: I played the following number of works from each century:

17th--7, 18th--10, 19th--8, 20th--9, 21st--6

That strikes me as very well balanced, particularly as I didn't think too much about it as the time.

Now as to nationality:

American--4, Austrian--1,Dutch--2, Finnish--1, French--7, German--8, Italian--3, Scottish--4

It turns out the Germans have a slight edge. This is by number of works played, not by number of composers represented.

If you are wondering about the low numbers, I am counting only the works I recorded (which means I left out two 20th centuries works for which I have not obtained copyright permission to post), and, although there are three slots in theory for each services, I always improvise the postlude, which no one listens to anyway, and is particularly short at the first service (I also need to rush across the hall to start the next one). Often someone sings the offertory as well, which means I can concentrate on one quality selection each week. Some weeks there are two.

If you couldn't care less about any of this, I'll be back next week with something you'll find more relevant. I just had to put this year to bed though for my own records, and also so I can check on how thoroughly I am applying certain principles in choosing music--principles which I think are pretty important after all.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A fun game for the kids?

You know that game in the comics section of the paper where you are supposed to find six differences between the two panels? I feel like I've been playing that a lot lately.

Preparing for a concert can be a tricky business. Preparing for one on an accelerated schedule is even more fun and games. But Gottschalk is there to help--sort of. There is a lot of repetition in his works. You can play the same thing four times in a row and it sounds just like a pianist practicing something over and over to get that gesture just right but you are actually playing it straight through the way the audience will hear it in concert!

On the other hand, many of Gottschalk's "repetitions" aren't exactly the same. I submit for your inspection this passage, in which the first three measure are identical and the fourth isn't:


Did you notice the difference? It comes down to one single note missing in the bass. It's such a small difference I didn't notice it the first time I listened to my recorded example, either, and I know where to "look." (the 2nd beat of the fourth measure)

Then there are details like this passage, which is played three times the first time it comes up, and only twice later in the piece. Twice also the third time it comes up toward the end of the piece. It's obligingly repetitive in its original guise, but isn't repeated the same number of times as everything around it, which means you have to pay attention to that slight difference too!


No wonder I'm going a little batty. This is all from a piece of Gottschalk's called "The Banjo," and the passages in question are really more atmosphere than anything else. They suggest patterns of plucking on the banjo, and occur as buildups and interludes rather than the places where there is any real melody--it's just that two-thirds of the piece occurs this way, as rhythm and verve but no tune. An interesting concept, but tricky to memorize.

Gottschalk does like to put on a show, though. People always like to sit on the keyboard side at piano recitals, which I can understand, but you are really going to want to do that for this concert. The composer's choreography is vital. Here's a passage from a piece called "Bamboula:"


Now just listening to it you might be under the impression that my right hand is playing the notes in the middle of the keyboard and the left hand stays down in the bass. No such luck. The left hand does play the bass note, then leaps up to join the right hand, not to cross over it, but to play the same notes that the right hand has just played. Everytime you hear a rapid dum-bump you are listening to my right and then my left in rapid-fire combination. I've got a wicked left, by the way. That piano doesn't stand a chance.

These kinds of acrobatic leaps are essential to Gottschalk's keyboard approach, and both the piano and I are really getting a workout. One final passage today for you to hear mainly because I'm relieved that I am finally able to play it with some decency. It occurs only once near the end of Bamboula, and there is, as usually, quite a bit of jumping around (the right hand pinkie in particular has to keep reaching up to snag that high C#):


It isn't quite all there yet, but it's starting to come, with two and a half weeks to go until show time. What a relief!


Monday, June 10, 2013

Charming, for sure

One of the reasons for playing a concert devoted to the works of Louis Moreau Gottschalk is that he was such an interesting fellow. Born in New Orleans in 1829, he soon made his way to Europe where, as an adolescent, he wowed Fred Chopin and the boys (Liszt, Berlioz et. al) with his original and untamed American music, then went to South America where he organized concerts for hundreds of performers, sometimes employing as many as 40 pianos along the way. All of this happened even before he got around to touring the northern United States while there was a bit of a war on.

One of the reasons we know so much about it is that he was also a prolific writer of words. "Researching" for this concert gave me an excuse to re-read "Notes of a Pianist," a volume of his writings, some published during his lifetime, some jotted down in a notebook for future publication when his death intervened. His sister later compiled the contents into a book and sent it into the world with the help of a poor translation from the French original by her husband. (That's right, Gottschalk spoke French--and English--and Spanish.)

Even before Gottschalk gets to America, he is living a strange double life. When he is not "Whirl[ing] in that monotonous and agitated circle that is called concert life" he is wandering among the villages, "seriously resolved to go no father; or detained in a village where the piano was unknown, by the ties of an affection with which my fingers had nothing to do...I forgot the world, and lived only for two large black eyes, which veiled themselves with tears whenever I spoke of beginning my vagabond course again, living as the bird sings, as the flower opens, as the brook flows, forgetful of the past, careless of the future."

Ok, if you want to gag now, I'll understand. Here Gottschalk paints himself rather proudly as a Don Juan, although later he will partially apologize for it to his American audiences: "All of this is frightfully immoral, I know, but life in the savannas of the tropics, in the midst of a half-civilized and voluptuous race, cannot be that of a London cockney, a Parisian ilder, or an American Presbyterian."

For Gottschalk, as to the Romantic movement in general, a sense of wandering and aimless freedom was very important, as was the charm of the exotic, and Gottschalk vows from the first pages that he is a traveller who will immerse himself in each locale, deploring those who travel but never, in their hearts or habits, truly leave home behind.

And if you find his lofty Romanticism insufferable, he can at times be funny. As Mark Twain was later in the century to write that "rumors of [his] death [had] been greatly exaggerated," so Gottschalk has to deal with the inevitable premature obituary in the newspapers--papers, which, in their haste to get the news to you first, occasionally could be blown a trifle off course (imagine that!):

"I wish to speak of my death. This sad event took place at Santiago three months ago. I was carried off in three days by a frightful attack of back vomit; it is the newspaper Savana la Grande that tells it; but the Revue de Villa Clara, without doubt better informed, makes me succomb to an aneurism of the heart, which I much prefer, the aneurism being much more poetical than the vomit."

Gottschalk's actual death, in Rio in 1869, apparently was caused by malaria, peritonitis, an overdose of quinine, or a ruptured abscess of the abdomen, depending on who is telling the tale, but it began with a collapse on stage shortly after playing a piece of his called "Morte!" (she is dead) which is all Romantic enough; legend, which admits no lengthy delays, removed the last two weeks of Gottschalk's decline and has him dying on the stage itself.

These things bookend his Civil War experiences, which is the period for the concert, though some of the pieces I'll be playing were written earlier. I'll be reading several of his observations as we go along, particularly the dispatches shortly before the Battle of Gettysburg, when he became an unwitting war correspondent for a few days!

The pianist's sudden departure from the United States in 1865 is also the stuff of tales; enmeshed in a scandal involving two young seminary girls, he was censured in the local papers, and fearing his reputation was finished, boarded a steamship in the dead of night and left the United States forever. He may have been framed by a local operatic impresario who was an artistic rival, and a letter that surfaced in 1984 from Gottschalk maintains his innocence. Still, the Bohemian bachelor, who makes several references in "notes" to the pretty young girls who attended his concerts as "faces to make one play false notes," might have had more of a way with the ladies than was good for him.

At any rate, faces of all kinds are welcome at Faith UMC, 1719 S. Prospect, Champaign, Illinois, on Sunday, June 30th at 3 P.M. There will be plenty of piano music, and more of Gottschalk in his own words.

Have a listen to one of Gottschalk's popular parlor pieces (it's on the concert, and I recorded it from the same piano.)

Gottschalk: O My Charmer, Spare Me!

next up, part four!

Friday, June 7, 2013

A New Song (part two)

A few months ago I wrote a blog about surviving, and even possibly getting to like, or at least constructively deal with, an instance of an unfamiliar song or hymn being introduced to the congregation. It was, until, recently, the most popular entry on this blog, and so I offer part two. This is not, strictly speaking, a sequel, since the first one was written for members of the congregation and offered possible things to do during and after such an occurrence that did not include running shrieking to the music director and declaring that you would leave the church unless you got to sing "Amazing Grace" instead of this bunch of noise to which you'd recently been introduced. Today I offer some advice to the persons in charge of introducing such effusions.

We all know some members of your congregation are more adventurous than others, and more flexible, and, let's face it, just nicer. And we know that the church as a body is not often known for innovation. But actually getting people to deal with something outside of the five hymns they like is imperative. Challenging the notion that they are the customer and that the customer is king is actually really really important. And learning and growth in a world which is just going to be larger than you can handle whether you like it or not and is peopled with people who are different than you and includes vast amounts of poetry and music that might someday become a favorite aid to the worship of your local congregation if they'd give it a chance is also of extreme necessity, spiritual and otherwise. So keep at it. But you don't have to make it too hard on people. Here are some ways to pave the road a little:

Make sure you sing the new piece for at least a couple of weeks. Don't just introduce it and then let it vanish never to be sung again unless it was such a total disaster the first time you don't think anybody could handle it again.

Have a soloist sing it the first week. Or have them sing the first verse, and everyone join in on the second.

If you are the organist, make sure the introduction to the hymn includes the entire hymn when it is new. I once told the congregation I'd play it all the way through and keep playing it until everybody looked up from their hymnbook and smiled, letting me know they thought they'd gotten the hang of it and were ready to go.

Play a prelude or offertory based on the same melody and let everybody know ahead of time what you are doing.

Have the choir sing it as an anthem.

Have the choir stand out in the congregation, or in the aisles, to help strengthen the singing, and lead the congregation from up close.

Sing a couple of verses, then play a verse while the congregation meditates on the words and doesn't try to sing.

Let everybody know you're "trying" something new. Be friendly. Be relaxed. Make sure the tempo is not too quick. Smile a lot. A lot of people get frustrated in a hurry by new stuff. Acknowledge their frustration, but keep smiling and be encouraging. Tell them "you'll get it!" and give them another chance.

Make singing something new a regular part of the service, maybe every other week. Make sure the other hymns are good and familiar. That way when somebody complains that "we never sing anything familiar" you can remind them politely that you also sang "Blessed Assurance" and "Amazing Grace" that morning. Keep in mind that people often have a good point when they criticize but completely fail in the delivery. Listen for the valid point and ignore the tone of its communication. Maybe they are bracing for an expected fight, too.

Expect some people to be completely unfair in their criticism. Expect the way to be difficult. That way you won't get knocked off your feet when the loudest congregants don't exactly feel swept off theirs by your selection.

Go home, get a nap, take some time to get away from people during the week, and go back in there next Sunday and try it again!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

An act of faith

I'm playing a piano recital of the music of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, a concert pianist who toured America during the Civil War. The concert is on June 30th at 3pm at Faith United Methodist Church in Champaign, Illinois.

Every time I start to prepare for a concert there is the time when I think: this is never going to happen. I am not going to learn this music in time. It feels like an act of faith to even prepare for it as if it is actually going to occur--successfully. And yet something (unreasoning fear?) makes me practice for an hour. Then another. And another. This process happens so often I refer to it as step one.

This time, however, I have set a new record for lateness in getting started. It's been a busy year, with a whole lot of unrelated musical activities, and, when I sat down on Monday, with less than four weeks to go before the concert date, I was in new territory. Normally I would have the entire program memorized by now; instead, I'm just getting started.

This was one of my worries--memorization. Besides just being able to play the notes. And everything else.

I have a theory that more successful people aren't any cooler than the rest, or that amateurs get worried and nervous while the professionals just go about their business. No, the difference is that the professional panics earlier. And with more intensity. That intensity compels him or her to practice. Hard. Then, as the date nears, the panic lessens as the results come in. A piece of music starts to actually sound like a piece of music. Until then, it is actually not a lot of fun preparing a program. And that's where I'm at right now. I want everything to feel comfortable and to sound good by last Tuesday. Which is totally unreasonable, and is probably the best thing I've got going for me right now. Make sense?

I'll share a couple of nuts and bolts things I did today. Here's a passage from the opening piece on the program which I am determined not to give away before concert time. This is a passage from somewhere in the middle so it doesn't count. It is also not going to be the most musical thing you've ever heard. In fact, it is the complete opposite of how I plan to play it on stage. That's because the thing I am worried about getting my ears around here is not the melody, or the bass--those are interesting enough that I'll imbibe them without thinking about them too hard. It's the tenor voice, the top of those chords that the left hand jumps to up from the bass every time. Where does that voice go? If I don't pay particular attention to it, try to make a musical line out of it, I'll never be able to remember how it actually goes and at the concert I'll mess it up. It's not very memorable, which means it needs special attention. As a general rule, you have to put in at least twice as much time on the "dull parts." So I'm playing this line quite loudly, to teach my ear how that part goes. The rest, melody and bass, is on automatic.


Another harvest from the practice room is the old standby to play slowly. Painfully. It's not terribly interesting this way, but it is also not at all necessary to achieve anything close to performance tempo in the first few days, particularly if you can play it well and comfortable at a slower speed. In my experience, once that happens, the piece speeds ups rather quickly. Suddenly, within a day, the piece goes from competent but boring to a full fledged piece of music that I can do something with. Check back in a couple of days; you won't recognize this passage!


In the meantime, Mr. Gottschalk has written a lot of interesting instructions in his scores, and I think I'm going to have a lot of fun trying to get into his brain. For one thing, he seems obsessed with "good rhythm." Instructions to keep the rhythm steady, not to slow down, to mark the rhythm well, dot the scores. Sometime  soon I'll count the number of similar instructions in the six pieces I'm playing. I suspect a large part of the reason for that is to combat the way amateurs played his music, slowing down partly out of affectation and partly because they just couldn't handle the hard parts at the same tempo they'd set for the rest of the piece! I can't imagine he didn't use a little rubato; I've heard a few pianists online playing these pieces with an absolutely unswerving sense of plowing through every beat of every passage at an identical speed and they sound like robots. No, a dance is not composed of absolutely equal beats. Besides, I've already noted one place in the scores that supports my theory about these markings being more to prevent abuse than out of a desire to communicate a musical idea: there is a place toward the beginning of a piece called "Pasquinade" where there is marking to not slow down. Now it never would have occurred to me to even think of slowing down there. If the composer feels compelled to warn others not to, then I think we have our winner!

Until next time, slow and steady! And with accents on all the "wrong" (unimportant) notes!

on to part three

Monday, June 3, 2013

Where's my agent, anyhow?

Today I flipped a switch and became a concert pianist again.

For those not familiar with my "lifestyle," over the weekend I ran a 10k, had a wedding and a funeral, played four church services, rehearsed "Missa Solemnis" with a choir, snuck in a little piano practice and another short rehearsal and a brief nap. Also played a set with a rock band I'm in (outdoors and just before the thunderstorm moved in!), and tonight I had to pretend I remember how to be a restaurant pianist for 90 minutes at a dinner to benefit cancer research. Good thing it's summer and the livin' is easy.

Since I've been learning so many organ works for church services this past year (I estimate that I play the equivalent of an organ recital about every six weeks) I've been neglecting the piano. And we have a perfectly good (actually perfectly wonderful) seven foot Steinway in our sanctuary that has been practically begging me to play it since Christmas. But no more. I have a plan to give it a workout this month.

On Sunday, June 30th at 3pm at Faith UMC here in Champaign Illinois (that's 1719 S Prospect) I'm going to give a recital of the works of Louis Moreau Gottschalk. The reason for the choice of program is simple. Gottschalk was a fascinating fellow who toured the United States giving concerts right in the middle of the Civil War. This July 1-3 is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, which Gottschalk nearly got himself in the middle of (he was at a safe distance by the time the battle began). I'm going to play probably about a half dozen of his pieces and also read some of his own writings about his travails, including how close he got to the war. If you can't make it to the concert, you can follow it on the blog. I plan to make some recordings as well as share my thoughts as I prepare for it. For now, you can get an introduction to Mr. Gottschalk over on Pianonoise. I wrote it over 10 years ago, and its about time I added some more music to the page, don't you think?

Now four weeks is a freakishly short time to prepare a piano recital, particularly if you are not feeling too ambitious (what can I say; summertime blahs). But I think I can pull it off, mostly because I'll only be playing about 35 minutes of music and spending the rest of the time telling Gottschalk's story, and also because Gottschalk's music is not as hard as it sounds, though it is still difficult. Most of the pieces, however, will be ones I have played before in some capacity or other, though none for very long or for a major occasion: at least I will have them somewhat under my fingers. The major exception to that is a piece called "Bamboula" which I've never played before, and I decided I'd better start with that one. I'm already violating my rule about having everything memorized a month before the concert--in this case I've decided I'd better get comfortable with everything in the next two weeks so I can polish everything in the last two. That means I'm going to have to take on a piece every couple of days. And today, as I said, was "Bamboula" day. For nearly five hours today, in three sessions, I ran over most of the pieces I plan to play, with a special emphasis on this piece, and, by the end of the day (about 10:30), I had the piece nearly memorized, and at an occasionally halting performance speed. Not too shabby for the first day. I ought to practice like this more often. If only I could! I'll share some of the early results on Wednesday.

Sometimes Gottschalk's audience got a preview by purchasing his music in sheet music form and playing it themselves. Sometimes they'd never heard any of it--or even heard a piano recital before. In some cases they'd never even seen a piano. Gottschalk was often their first exposure to anything that even resembled his art.

If you've never been to a piano recital before, this is a good place to start. The music is very listener friendly, with plenty of repetition and pianistic flair because Gottschalk really knew how to put on a show. I came to realize that from the very first few bars of "Bamboula." You will too. Have some fun with me this month.

on to part two