Monday, February 17, 2014


I've always thought of artistic endeavors as more of a marathon than a sprint, which might be one reason you won't see any piano playing at the Olympics. It isn't that people haven't figured out how to make piano playing a competitive sport; they've just never been able to draw the ratings necessary for it. But imagine if they did put it on television.

For one thing, you would have to have a pair of announcers telling us all everything the pianist did that wasn't exactly up to par. You can't trust people to hear wrong notes themselves--I've made a career out of making mistakes that people are either too polite to point out or are too subtle for anyone without intimate knowledge of the score to hear in the first place. And when improvising, one can always take a missed note and make it sound intentional. It all depends on what you do in the moments immediately following.

And yet, in ice skating, it is completely obvious to anyone when someone falls on his or her can in the middle of a routine and yet you still have intermediaries crying out to let us know that it was a bad thing. Also, when a what was advertised as a triple axle turns out to be merely a double ("Bob, he's only playing that scale passage with one hand! That's an automatic deduction right there!") or when the landing was a bit wobbly ("that F# sounded more like mezzo forte than mezzo piano. We'll have to see what the judges think about that!"). There is no way NBC would let somebody get all the way through the Goldberg Variations without incessant commentary. People expect it.

(Actually, ABC tried presenting an entire football game on a Monday night in the 70s without announcers and they decided afterward people wanted them.)

But it's the pace of the arts that is the biggest obstacle, or perhaps the average attention span. This has apparently been compounded recently by the ubiquitous 90 second clips that festoon the online experience--it is rather difficult these days to actually watch a more lengthy excerpt. But, hey, the people have spoken (maybe).

But even on broadcast television you have to get through a sea of advertising. That's ok. For the longer events, say the marathon, they line up, the gun goes off, you see them run for thirty seconds, they go to commercial. They cover 3 other events. They go to commercial four times. They come back...people are still running! how exciting.

If the event is shorter, like a 3 minute skating program, they just stick commercials in between each of the competitors. I am old (and cranky) enough to remember when they would actually let you watch three or four people compete and THEN cut away to commercials. But, like all economic enterprises, people wanted to see if they could make just a little bit more money putting a few more ads in there which caused prices to come down which means they have to put more ads in there, and so forth.

I could imagine the day when piano made it to the Olympics (summer or winter, I wonder? I guess if it was a winter event you'd have to place it on ice.) On comes the Russian. He begins to play Chopin's "Minute" Waltz. Five measures of it. fade to a commercial for a car. We come back. Now he's playing part of the second section. We get another eight bars. Time for another commercial. Return for the big finish. And always the announcer telling us what we could have already figured out for ourselves, mostly. Heck, once in a while they say something I hadn't thought of, not being a retired competitor, and I learn something. Then he grins at the judges, takes a big bow, and walks off. We wait for the scores. Tears, or triumph. He moves into second place, for now. He gets flowers, and a hug from his coach. And his mommy. He waves at the camera. Such a cutie.

He is, of course, all of five years old.

Friday, February 7, 2014

The thing with the rodent predicting the weather and how it has to do with baby Jesus

My wife got tired of my constantly interrupting her with new revelations about what I was learning over the interwebs on Sunday so I figured I'd bother you with them instead.

We have a thing here in America called Groundhog Day. I imagine I should explain that because you never know where in the world someone might be reading your blog and while it is common knowledge in this country it might be completely off the radar somewhere else. Maybe the Swiss, for example, have better things to do.

But here in North America a custom has developed, dating back to 1887, wherein a particular form of rodentia by the name of Puxatawny Phil, who happens to reside in Puxatawny, Pennsylvania, USA, is released from his gilded cage once a year on February 2nd at 7:27 or so in the morning, and, if he sees his shadow we are in for six more weeks of winter, and if he does not, we will have an early spring.

I realize the idea of a groundhog predicting the weather must seem so self evident that even folks in Saudi Arabia are thinking I'm being very patronizing for feeling the need to explain that, but thus it is.

Also, I'm afraid sarcasm may not be as universal as I'd like it to be, either, so I am now compounding my error.

Anyhow, folks in the USA are quite taken with the idea. In addition to Mr. Phil, there is also quite a bit of other geographical groundhoggery with colorful names, though the people of Pennsylvania believe them to be cheap knock-offs and swear by Phil and Phil alone.

I was in church rehearsing with the band when I first got the news of Phil's shadow-seeing on my phone and like many Americans I have spent the week since being sore at Phil for bearing such tidings and not forecasting an early spring. We could really use one around here, particularly with the unusually severe winter we are experiencing in central Illinois. If Phil had gone the other way, we would not have gotten those 6 inches of snow this week, and this morning's low would not have been minus 4 for something like the 18th day this winter.

I realize that makes about as much sense as being angry at the Seattle Seahawks for beating the Denver Broncos in the Superbowl recently. For one thing, that is exactly what they are supposed to try to do, and for another, the highly talented group of football players who play on a team located in your city may win or lose, but what does that really have to do with you and your accomplishments, or your worth as a human being? They aren't related to you, and you aren't coaching the team.

But football fandom is popular anyhow, and fans do take losses personally, and besides, with something like Phil you get an outlet for your general frustration with winter for a few days and people won't think you are too crazy for cursing a groundhog so long as he a) ate your flowers or b) is a nationally recognized custom and symbol of whatever insanity is considered just a lot of harmless fun by enough of the population.

But just so I could experience a little more of that fun, and because I was sure it had to be on Wikipedia, I thought I'd check a list of Phil's predictions since the dawn of time (1887) and see how often he had been right and so forth.  So I went online and did some digging (sorry).*

There I learned that some of his predictions were never written down and had been lost for all time (!) but that he also managed to be correct only about 40% of the time. Which was strange, because he usually predicts more winter, which is what I assumed would be the safe thing to predict in Pennsylvania in early February. Apparently people there experience early spring more often than I would have thought. It made me wonder what constitutes an "early spring"--does it have to last for more than a day of anomalous warm weather? Does it count if it occurs 5 and a half weeks into the 6 weeks period of extra winter? Did whoever compile that list have it in for Phil?

While I was doing my research I stumbled across a thing called "Candlemas." It always occurs on the 2nd of February, which is 40 days after Christmas. If I were Catholic I would probably know what it was, but as a less liturgically sensitive Protestant, I hadn't heard of it. It marks the presentation of the baby Jesus in the temple, as was the custom with infants (is this where he was circumcised?) and the prophecies of Simeon and Anna as related in Luke 2.  Evidently, there sprang up a proverb, centuries later, that the weather of Candlemas was a predictor of the length of winter. For instance, this Scottish version: "If Candlemas is bright and clear, there'll be two winters in the year." Candlemas got its name because the priests would bless candles and pass them out to the people. This must have made things confusing since the artificial light source would have led to a certain amount of extraneous shadow seeing.

There were also a number of stories related to the reawakening of animals out of their hibernatory habitats, and these also play a part in the eventual coming of Phil the Magnificent.

Folks in Pennsylvania have naturally updated the custom with a lot of modern pageantry for the 21st century mind, and also to keep the groundhog punctual and reliable. You couldn't have him running off and just being a groundhog, or deciding he prefers February 3rd some year when you've got The Media waiting. So what they do is keep him in a cage, and every year the president of the "inner circle" gets him out at the appointed time, holds him aloft, and listens to Phil jibber in "groundhogeese" which only the current president of the "inner circle" can understand. Said president then translates it to the crowd. I am not sure if this is before or after they slip him a drink that lengthens his life for another 7 years so he can go on being the same groundhog he was since 1887, shaming the farmer's almanac with his beasty intuition.

Anyway, then they sing a few hymns and go home. Wait, that might be Candlemas.

So there you have it--a concise explanation of the relationship between baby Jesus and Groundhog Day. At the time of this writing, I am still not sure how either of them is related to Kevin Bacon.
*no I'm not.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A little Musical Motivation

Here's a video a friend shared with me this week. Apparently the arts are good for something....

watch it here