Friday, November 29, 2013

Wake Up!

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

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

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

listen to Wachet auf  by J. S. Bach

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Going for it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Veni, Redemptor Gentium by Hieronymus Praetorius

(Come, Savior of the Gentiles, verse 1)

Monday, November 25, 2013

pictures from the trumpet recital

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

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

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

Friday, November 22, 2013


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 20, 2013


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 18, 2013

Noise noise and more noise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What an odd world, no?

Friday, November 15, 2013

A union of opposites

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

more on the art of pitch giving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The words "pitches, please"

A look in my direction

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

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

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

Monday, November 11, 2013

pianonoise revealed

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

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

The world headquarters of

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

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

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

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

Alkan: Prayer no. 1

Friday, November 8, 2013

Another blog from your mild mannered church organist

A few weeks ago, I began to explore the role and/or function of the church organist. The issue was quality, or the decided lack thereof, in many church music programs, and the culprits were not only the average ability of the persons in charge of the music (can't be helped, in some cases) but also the attitudes of even those who could, if they really worked at it, bring some very fine music making to bear upon what is, theoretically, kind of an important place to be offering your best every week.

But there are other forces at work in this area. In addition to things that would not normally call forth either the best qualified persons, nor their best efforts, such as a very low salary, sub-par instruments, and the expectation that the organist will not play anything too fancy or too noticeable, there has often been this lovely idea floating around. It comes from a book on organ registration from nearly a century ago:

"In the work of the services of the church the student should at once realize that the organ cannot and must not be used as a solo instrument, for the obtrusion of personality is contrary to the spirit of things ecclesiastical; the organist must in this phase of his work be willing to submerge himself and his personal claims for attention as a performer, contenting himself with the knowledge that those among his listeners whose opinions he values will appreciate him at his true worth even though his service be characterized by the utmost degree of self-effacement."

                                                                      --Nevin, A Primer on Organ Registration, 1919, p. 47

The italics are mine, as is this reaction--I hope you don't mind a little vulgarity--what a bunch of horse-huey!

Actually, Mr. Nevin's book is fairly useful, and his judgement generally sound, but I happen to find extreme statements like those I marked to be very annoying. I am hardly someone who those who know me would characterize as a prima donna. I fit quite comfortably, and enjoyably, in a group, as a accompanist, as a listener, as a person who will get coffee for someone else, only there are times when I feel that I--or, more likely, the composer of the music I am playing--have something of value to say, and it seems to me that it ought to be said. And that generally requires the attention of the assembled multitudes. That never seems to bother anyone else, such as the pastor, the liturgist, the person reading the announcements, and so on, so why, down through the ages, prohibitions on simply the role of the organist? And if I have a unique way of saying what I'm saying--well, did God create us to be interchangeable automatons, or not? ("I wanted to get a lobotomy, but apparently those are illegal now, so I guess I just can't be a church organist. Sigh.")

This isn't to say, of course, that there aren't church musicians with big egos. I've met a number of them myself. So when I write about something like this I feel like I'm in the middle of one of life's innumerable battlefields, and I can see folks shooting at each other from both sides and frankly I don't really feel that comfortable championing either army. The difficultly I have with Mr. Nevin's well-represented side of things is that this is an example of how the church chooses to deal with the question of persons with overactive self-aggrandizement glands, which is to state, categorically, that humility is the best option, always and everywhere, and that pride, or personality, or even ego, are, always and everywhere, very very very very bad. So rather than trying to develop those tendencies so that they can be used to serve others, you should just suppress them and pretend you are someone else, preferably someone anonymous.

Did you catch what he said about the "obtrusion of personality," as if it were a bad thing to be who you are because--I don't know--you are in church now, and God might find out? That you have a personality, I mean.

And the bit about the "utmost self-effacement." Why do you suppose the word utmost is in there? Is it because it just takes that degree of extremity to get the point across to some of our more egotistical musicians? If it is, if it does, than I'll sign off on it. But really, just how self-effacing do we need to be?

Because, in reality, church organist is a leadership position. You have to lead people in worship on a Sunday morning. You have to set the tempo for the hymn, and the character, make it obvious when it is time to sing, not miss your cues when it is time for a sung response, keep going through any mistake you make so it does not derail the whole assembled body--you have to be able to make musical decisions and make them now and make them obvious. And if you are so meek and mild that you are afraid to do these things, you probably are not going to make a very effective organist.

You might, however, make a member of the congregation! Mr. Nevin says somewhere else:

…”Most untrained singers are literally afraid of the sound of their own voices and before they can be persuaded to attempt singing must be made to feel that there is sufficient volume from organ and choir to make it unlikely that their individual voices will be heard all over the church!”

I should have saved that quote for another article on congregational singing. The truth of the matter is that we need persons--singers, speakers, candle-lighters--who are not afraid to step in and step up when it is time to fulfill their function, and a little bit of personality isn't a bad thing, as is the courage to know that it is time to do what you are doing and if it isn't you are just going to have to laugh about it later because the church is not going to completely fall apart. This does not mean that a person who is a "soloist" one moment should not be respectful of the rest of the congregation, and always strive to make everyone else look, and sound, good, and to hold it as a high goal to make sure that everybody has a place at the table. The aim is not "hey! everybody! look at me! Aren't I terrific!"

Between that position and the one that Mr. Nevin outlined above there is plenty of ground, and many things to discuss. And it is not always the more subtle voices doing the discussion. Paul kicked things off two millenia ago when he advised the Corinthians to always "consider other better than yourselves." Which, considering what he was up against, may not have been such overkill as it sounds. Trimming back your own aims to make sure that others are being fed--that is close to a definition of love. And it is close to a definition of false modesty, too. Not to mention all of those Medieval saints who seem to have held it a fierce competition to prove that they were the lowest of the low and that everyone was better than they were (sheez!) (Well, after all, Jesus did say that whoever wanted to be the greatest should be the least. Leave it to some folks to take that literally--and to compete for the top spot by being more humble than the next guy.)

Last week, when, in front of the bishop and everybody, the giver of our children's sermon couldn't get her candle to light, someone from the band grabbed a candle lighter from the next room and ran over and lit her candle so she could go on with her illustration. I thought it was a holy moment. But you have to be alive to do that, and in the moment, and not afraid to be noticed. It's a true leader, then, who is able to take care of the flock, and to get things wrong sometimes, and to get up and try again. And to show people that they can be the unique people they are and still--gasp--be welcome in God's house.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Pitch perfect

disambiguation: This article is about giving pitches. For perfect pitch, see another blog I haven't written yet. Or you can go here for a brief discussion of same.

Choral accompanists: hello. Good morning/afternoon/evening and welcome to my first entry on how to improve your craft. If you've been to Pianonoise before you are probably aware that I can be relied upon to fixate on what appear to be some pretty strange things. Today we are going to focus entirely on the art of giving pitches to choirs.

Say what?

This is usually the first thing you do after the choir is warmed up, and, if the piece being performed is without accompaniment, it may be the only thing you do. Most people may be under the impression that any reasonably talented baboon can give pitches, but there are, in fact, several subtle things to be considered that can actually make you a much better accompanist if you take them into account.

it's all about the pacing.

Keeping the pace of the director is important. I would guess I can save my choral organizations a couple of hours of rehearsal every year by giving pitches as soon as they are needed: usually the director does not need to say the word. As soon as the piece is announced, the choir seems reasonably quiet, and the director is finished giving instructions, that opening chord sounds. Whenever the director stops, gives instructions, and then says, "start at the pickup to measure 59," the chord sounds. This happens not only because I am focused on the proceedings, but also, as soon was we stop, I am also diagnosing the problem, listening to the director, and guessing where we are going to be asked to start up again, based on where the last reasonable place to start might be. In other words, I have already

read the director's mind

so that by the time he/she gets the words out of his/her mouth, I am probably already looking at the chord I will have to play. If I have guessed wrong, I will have to find the correct one pronto, but I am a pretty good guesser. Ten to one, if I have a well-developed sense of where each musical unit begins, and my director does too, I can guess where a good spot to begin again will be. If I am listening to the choir, I probably already know what the director is going to fix (although there may be multiple issues, and my first plan of attack may not be theirs). If I am listening to what comes out of the director's mouth regarding what he/she didn't like about what she heard, that is an even better indication of where we are going to start!

Of course, all of this depends on one important thing, which is that, whether I am actually playing anything or not, I have to be a part of the music making. So, let's back up a bit and say

no reading magazines during rehearsal!

Musicians can often be disengaged during what appears to be downtime--times when they aren't doing anything active, like actually playing notes. My theory is that this isn't downtime at all, in fact, by listening to the choir during unaccompanied pieces, I can actually become another coach--sometimes quietly playing a few notes to remind the tenors they are flat, or that they missed an interval, and even subtly making a suggestion to the director (who has good ears) of something that ought to be fixed. It has gotten so that my director, confident that I am following along, may sometimes cue me back in if she has asked me not to play a passage with the choir. After several pages, suddenly, on measure 109, I get the cue, and join the choir in progress without a hitch. Or, she'll ask me to help the basses, and if I am silently following their part I can usually pop right back in within a beat or two.

Primarily, then, the point in all of this is not to in any way disrupt the flow of the rehearsal. In fact, you should be able to give pitches so that the director says what they want to say and is able to count off with no waiting at all. If you are canny, you can get the pitches in during the narrow space between the final word and the start of the count-off, so that there is no waiting at all. Be engaged, and be quick!

Monday, November 4, 2013

Some concert!


If you're dialing in from Saskatoon or Zanzibar or any other place that isn't Champaign-Urban Illinois, and you weren't in the audience of about 300 who packed First Methodist Church in Urbana last night to hear The Chorale perform it's annual Celebration of Life concert, you missed an event.

The Chorale sang 15 hymns and spirituals largely from arrangements by Alice Parker and Robert Shaw. Tenor Davion Williams, a former Chorale scholarship winner, sang three lively pieces by African-American composers. I played a set of pieces you can hear by checking out Friday's blog. We were led for most of the evening by a man Artistic Director Julie Beyler referred to as "our Principal Guest Conductor" since he has been with us now five times in the last decade, Dr. Craig Jessop. Dr. Jessop was the director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir until 2008 and apparently doesn't mind conducting our "chamber ensemble" of a mere 70-80 members from time to time!

What can I say about this man? He has a pile of energy. I don't know where he gets it all, but it is certainly necessary when working with groups of that size. Even better, it radiates outward to the members of the ensemble and makes it seem we will never get tired and that there is no place we would rather be than right here right now making this glorious music. What a privilege!

Energy is all the more important because whenever we invite a guest clinician to work with us, which we do every 18-months, the group rehearses for a few hours on Friday night, all morning and afternoon on Saturday, then again Sunday afternoon for a couple hours, and the concert is in the evening. It is hard not to be exhausted by the time the concert begins, never mind when it is over, and those last two hours are of course when you'd like to be at your best. (By the way, I don't know what most folks do with their down time, but I usually have 4 church services to fit in there as well, and sometimes a wedding, too.) Until I actually see Dr. Jessop looking tired I'll not believe it.

This year's venture was a bit different than previous ones, and in some respects the load was lighter. We had no orchestra this year and all of our rehearsal time was spent directly with our guest. Not only was there no orchestra but most of the pieces were unaccompanied. I only played the organ for the final piece--the organ was actually positioned so I didn't have to cock my head at a funny angle to see the director or keep whispering to choir members to leave space so I could see the director. No, I had a straight ahead shot, which is a rarity. One of the two pieces with piano accompaniment was scored for piano duet so we invited a terrific accompanist from the university to join us. The rest of the evening was spent listening to the Chorale, seated at my usual premium position at the piano (although the sound is actually better in the back of the hall) and giving pitches. I remember after the first half being asked to take a bow and thinking I'd never actually taken applause for such a simple thing as giving pitches before.

Only it wasn't quite like that. I've been fortunate to work with several conductors who seem to worry about the boredom of their accompanist when the concert is filled with a cappella music and the accompanist's entire job is to play the opening chord for the choir a note at a time (bass, tenor, alto, soprano) and then sit and listen. On Friday night for some reason Dr. Jessop asked me to "noodle" a bit in the key of one of the pieces (and then to do it in the style of Aaron Copland). After that he would ask me occasionally to do some improvising to set the mood for the piece, and by the time of the concert I had a new function: to prelude every unaccompanied piece with a short improvised introduction on the piano.

It was an intriguing task. From the audience point of view the effect was to link the pieces together (Dr. Jessop asked for no applause between numbers) so that they sounded like an extended "meditation." From the choral point of view it not only set the mood, and the tempo (an important function of the conductor that Dr. Jessop graciously ceded to me), but as the final rehearsal minutes went past I started taking notes about what he told the choir to focus upon for each piece--when a particular rhythmic gesture was critical, when the piece needed to dance, or not drag, when the altos needed to sing a particular line with more force--and tried to include references to those musical moments in my "miniatures" as if to say to The Chorale, "now remember what needs to happen when we get to this part!" secretly, in music, so the audience need not be aware.

I started at the end of one of the pieces for this reason, and included parts of the chorus in another--one of the improvisations started with the aforementioned alto line. I second-guessed myself a couple of times when the results from The Chorale weren't what I'd hoped and I wondered if I didn't remind them of the right character. Although I suppose we are not all given to subtlety and those rapid reminders may not have always hit home. Also, we didn't actually tell them they should be listening for those things: they just sort of dawned on me as we got close to the concert. But as he says often, "music is 90 percent craft and 10 percent art." (That might be from Robert Shaw) So in addition to the interest the audience shares in just "playing whatever the spirit prompts at the moment" there is also attention to how to say it, and why.

Dr. Jessop and I had a system: I would look at him near the end of each improvisation so he could start his preparation beats. In at least one case the "passing of the baton" went so well that the choir starting promptly on the very next beat with all of the energy of the last chord of the piano.

There were some disappointments, certainly. The energy of our conductor was not always transferred to the singers, who may have been too engrossed in their music, or too rooted in each note to think in phrases and groups, and to get the spirit of the thing which really only comes in those moments when we are completely free of the page and its demands and can get to that next level and make art. But then there were the moments when it happened.

The Chorale is an amateur ensemble. It is not necessary to audition to get in. Anybody who loves to sing is welcome. Under those circumstances it is not likely the group will sound like a bunch of music majors who have devoted their professional lives to honing their craft, touring the world and recording masterworks of the repertoire with precision and skill. And they don't, much of the time. But here is what is amazing: sometimes, they actually do. There were a few moments during the all-day Saturday rehearsal when, at a suggestion form Dr. Jessop, suddenly the blend, the ensemble, the precision, the choral sound could have passed for that of a truly great choir. It is incredible that there are such moments--it isn't even fair to those of us who have spent thousands of hours and dollars and blood and sweat and tears to get there to have a non-professional group reach such heights.

But occasionally they do, even if only for a few measures. And it is really intriguing. That a group of basically regular folks can actually sound that good if they really focus, and spend enough time in practice with someone who not only knows how to get the sound out of them, but persists in trying. It happens. And it rocks me back every time, and I think...."Wow! That was The Chorale you just heard, folks!"

And it shouldn't be a mark against our regular leader, either. Artistic Director Julie Beyler is correct when she points out that she tells the choir most of the same things, but it seems to help to hear them from an exalted guest. Heck, I even had a moment when Dr. J. was reminded the fellas to hold their music at a certain angle so they could see him as well as their notes and I said to may piano duet partner, "I told them the same thing last week [in sectionals]!"

That can be naturally frustrating, of course, but like Dr. Jessop, I say that in love. It is hard to produce fine music. It takes extraordinary amounts of discipline, focus, and perseverance. I get frustrated with myself endlessly. (By the way, I wasn't satisfied with some portions of the pieces that I played during the concert, either.) But, in the end, that's the path you have to travel if you want to get there from here. Dr. Jessop proved that. A few times he had the choir drilling passages on rapid-fire repeat, going for an effect by singing the passage multiple times in order to make excellence a habit. Pianists, he reminded the group, do this sort of thing all the time. And he even practiced things like holding a pose as the last chord died away and not moving before the piece is really over.

In the process, I'd say he showed that it's really hard work, rather than native talent, that has the lion's share in making the pretty decent pretty wonderful. This was evident in the way the group sounded at times over the weekend. That's highly unfair to us professionals. But's its also pretty awesome.

Because I can hear it and say, "wow, that wasn't the St. Olaf Choir you just heard there, ladies and gentlemen. That was The Chorale!"

Friday, November 1, 2013

Fun weekend

It's going to be an interesting weekend. The bishop is coming for a visit at Faith UMC this Sunday. We are having a single service and inviting the entire church to it. Normally we have four weekend services, of which I play for them all, so, in a way, it is like getting three quarters of a week off. Sort of. Of course that one service will be more elaborate and stressful and call on more of my resources than a regular service would have, but it will certainly not be a snooze. Fortunately, that gives it a bit of luster for me.

The rest of the weekend will be spent in rehearsal with The Chorale, a community choral organization with about 70 members who sing at least three concerts annually, the first of which is always the first weekend in November. This time we are welcoming back Dr. Craig Jessop, former conductor of The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, for a fifth time! In an unusual twist, there will be no 20-piece orchestra this time around. Instead, Dr. Jessop will lead the group in mostly a cappella numbers. As the group's accompanist, I'll play the piano a couple of times and the organ once, and largely sit back and enjoy the concert. After about 8 or 9 hours of rehearsal Fri, Sat and Sunday, I won't mind the break. Normally I spend Sunday afternoon becoming the orchestral pianist and sight reading a new part in which most of my favorite notes have been farmed out to the other instruments.

But it doesn't quite end there. Tenor Davion Williams, a former scholarship winner, will sing a few solo numbers, to which I'll supply the accompaniment. And I'll also be playing a handful of short solo piano and organ pieces. I thought I'd let you listen in to some recordings I made on Tuesday as part of the learning process (this gives me a chance to see how well I can play the pieces while nervous).

Since the concert consists entirely of hymns and spirituals, I'm playing pieces based on hymns (Davion is singing spirituals; didn't that work out nicely?). Here they are, as well as some short remarks I'm planning to make as an introduction to each one:

[I probably won't say anything about this one, although it takes its name from a very interesting image in the book of Deuteronomy. I can just see a kid drawing of God with really really long arms.]

Leaning on the Everlasting Arms

This hymn tune bears the attractive name "Pisgah." The jury is out on where the name came from--possibly it's named after a mountain peak. I first heard this tune when The Chorale sang it a couple of years ago in an Alice Parker arrangement to the words of the 23rd Psalm. So if any of it sounds like verdant pastures and flowing water, that may be why.


Before every concert I've attended or played in for the last 10 or 15 years you hear the same announcement: please, turn off your cell phones! This might be what would happen if you didn't turn off your cell phone before a church service:

Jesus Calls Us

The year of Jubilee is come! That's the refrain to the following hymn. In order to announce this Year of Jubilee, it was time to sound the ceremonial trumpet.

Blow ye the trumpet, blow

When this tune was originally published, it was in a minor key. "On Jordan's Stormy Banks I Stand, and cast a watchful eye to Canaan's fair and happy land where my possessions lie." Only, a century later, as religious fashions came and went, people thought it sounded to solemn. So the tune was recast in a blithe, major key. Now just maybe it sounds as if we aren't standing on the stormy bank on the opposite side of the river at all, but we are already in the promised land. In any event, in this piece you'll hear both versions of the tune, alternately. I wonder which one will be left standing at the end....

Are We There yet?

If you happen to be in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, this weekend, perhaps I'll see you at 7 pm on Sunday at the First United Methodist Church in Urbana.