Friday, January 30, 2015

Sunday Morning (part three)

The first 90 minutes of each Sunday morning is spent dividing my time between two sanctuaries--as if I am serving two churches simultaneously. That situation is alleviated at 9am, when the Fusion service begins. However, it is also about the time that the 8am service ends. And sometimes, there is a little anxiety about this.

It's not that I check my watch all the time--but I'll tell you this. Long ago I established a benchmark for the beginning of the sermon: if it begins at 8:24, we're right on time. After that, I get a little nervous. I might have to bag the offertory, pick up the tempo on the closing hymn, or outright ask anybody available if they can play a postlude (usually there is no one to ask; occasionally I have a back-up nearby) depending on the estimated time of the end of the service--and I am a pretty accurate guesser. I will have already timed the sermon on Saturday night at the 5:15 service so I know just how much time I have to get back across the hall while finishing up practice with the band. And I know how long the offertory will take to play and can estimate the doxology, closing hymn, and since I improvise the postlude, make it as short as necessary. That's one way improvisation really helps. Once, when we had a guest speaker who continued to talk until 8:59, I bagged the offertory and improvised that until the exact moment I saw the ushers finished taking the offertory; then went directly to the doxology. Sometimes I'll text Doug in the other service and tell him that the sermon just ended and suggest he hold the countdown a couple of minutes if possible.

And there is a countdown clock. As soon as the postlude ends, I jog across the hall, and as I round the corner into the Worship and Life Center I can see it flashing--10...9...8... with the other musicians on stage. I can't tell you how many times this has happened. And yet it is very rare that I miss the downbeat of the first song. It's happened before, but not often. And usually the band can go on without me if they have to. If it looks like I have a chance of being late I request that the first song not be one of the songs where the piano plays by itself for the first minute before the rest of the band joins in!

Once I'm in Fusion, however, things get a bit easier. We usually do around six praise songs, one or two of which I may not have rehearsed that week at all, but will have played before; I'm comfortable with that level of unpreparedness, which is one of the reasons I do well in a church! If it sounds like I practiced, than it worked. That's my rule. And that's how I manage to stay overbooked and perfectly sane all the time.

Most folks don't arrive for the Fusion service until about 9:10, so some weeks you can really watch the place fill up after what initially looked like a really depressingly low turnout. Most of the music is at the beginning. I've learned to sneak out during the sermon for my Sunday morning doughnut, which I used to snag on my way to choir practice after the Fusion service but have found to be more relaxing (also the sugar kicks in when I need it to) this way. I can also talk to the choir director if I need to. Then I head back into the Worship and Life Center, and listen to the rest of the sermon. They have a copy in the booth in the back and we are always warned when Brad's on the last page. Then Doug and I make our way to the light box near the stage, and as soon as Brad says "amen" we are back to work.

When the service ends we all hold hands for the benediction (or "hover in their vicinity" if we are not comfortable with the hand holding) and I'm off to the third service of the morning. If the service has run a bit late I'd better move. It's usually only a few minutes past ten, unless we had communion, in which case we've probably had to stretch the communion piece while the side of the church with the most attenders keeps coming to the front long after the other station is finished. Nothing says lopsided like our communion services! By 10:05 I am back in the sanctuary, and ready for choir practice.

(I'll conclude my exciting Sunday morning exploits next week)

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Who wrote the 8 little preludes and fugues? (part five)

It's been a while since I've been to the library and apparently my skills are rusty. It takes me too long to find what I want, and ultimately I zero in on one source. But that is plenty material for one blog. For one thing, it is historiographical and thus discusses the work of several other scholars. It also begins by listing the known sources, the available manuscripts for the pieces. Namely:

"no autograph MS; complete source P 281; a lost complete source used for Peters VIII (1852); not known in BG 38 (1891)."

I'll break that down in a minute.

I started my investigation on the internet some time ago. There mention was made of the preface to an edition of the Eight by Alfred Durr.  My first trip to the library was to find this edition, and copy the preface. The preface contained what all scholarly works should contain: citations. Mr. Durr identified five musicologists who had worked on the problem of authorship, and listed, in the footnotes, what their works were. The first principle of scholarly investigation is to follow the footnotes.

Since three of them were in German I decided to wait on them--you can't check out old journals from the library, and my German reading is pretty slow. One of the other sources was apparently not available. Most of this scholarship dates from the 1930s to 1950s, which means it is probably outdated, superseded by new evidence; or, at least it is likely that a more recent source will sum up the conclusions of earlier scholars.

This is certainly the case with the source I found, a book by Peter Williams called "The Organ Music of J. S. Bach" (Cambridge University Press, 1980, rev. 2003). It is in three volumes--or was. I think it is in one enormous volume now, but I can't recall whether the 2003 revision split or joined the volumes. In any case, I copied the relevant pages to take home and digest.  They are from the 2003 edition.

The section begins by listing what we have. There is no copy of these works in Bach's handwriting. There is a complete manuscript known as P 281, which is presumably a cataloging system for identifying manuscripts in a particular collection, though I know no more about it than that, and it is not explained here. There was also one other manuscript which is now lost, but was consulted for an edition of Bach's works brought out by the publishing firm Peters in 1852 ( the "Eight" must be in volume VIII). The Bach-Geselleshaft, which published the first "complete" edition of Bach's works (and took most of Brahms's lifetime to do it, I seem to recall), did not include these pieces.

What follows are two pages of discussion about what previous scholars have had to say, and what Mr. Williams thinks about their conclusions. It is too long to quote here. It is quite dense, and includes the names of several composers that only music students with advanced degrees would know (such as myself) and a few that I've never heard of either. This is followed by entries on all eight preludes and fugues in turn, of about a page each (for prelude + fugue). I think I'll choose one of these entries to discuss in detail next week.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Turn it up!

I've been told a couple of times that some of the music in my mp3 catalogue isn't loud enough. Let me address that:

1) Some of the files are pretty quiet--especially if they go back to the first year (2011). I've been trying to bump up the volume on these as time allows.

2) More recently, the general level of the recordings has increased. Still, I'm trying to stay consistent, which isn't easy when you make recordings over a span of years and under different circumstances.

3) Consistent doesn't mean compressed, however. There are really two reasons why some of the music might seem pretty quiet. One is that I want dynamics. If a piece is meant to be soft I want it to come across that way. In that case, you probably won't be able to crank it up no matter how much juice you apply. That's the way it is. That is how the composer wanted it.

4) The other reason is that my recording equipment isn't high-end, and I'm an amateur at this, so even though I have a Steinway-B at my disposal, and a 30-rank pipe organ, the sound quality, once compressed to mp3 files for the internet, will only take so much. My ears are pretty sensitive, and I don't like recordings that distort when turned up too high, so when I started this catalog I pretty much removed that option by keeping the recording output low enough to sound good under most circumstances. Maybe I overdid it. But that was the idea.

Now...if you are having trouble hearing it, what can you do about it?

1) listen to a different piece (some of them are pretty loud!)

2) adjust your volume. You might not realize it, but you probably have more than one volume nob. There may be one on your computer (click on the icon in the lower right hand corner of your screen for instance) which you can adjust; then the player which you are using to play the file may come with its own volume adjustment, and any external speaker you are using also have volume nobs. If any one of these is turned down you may be able to get a lot more juice than you think.

3) quiet the noise in your environment. Many people with desktop computers have their tower units on the desk next to the speakers and if the fan is running on the computer it makes a lot of noise. When our heat comes on at home it makes a lot of noise. There are often many things in one's surrounding that make plenty of noise. If you can quiet any of these, or come back later when the house is quiet, you may be surprised at how much better you can hear the music. This again was a philosophical choice. I had in mind someone who would actively listen to the music, not someone who was doing the dishes and needed mindless noise piped from across the room. Sorry.

4) try headphones. This is actually how I listen to my own files, and, when the house is quiet and I've got the phones on, I can hear some pretty quiet stuff. It may skew my perception a bit of what most of my listeners are hearing, but I'm really listening for every detail that way.

5) I'm a guy with a pretty quiet voice; people who aren't tuned into that don't notice me or ask me to repeat things sometimes. That probably has something to do with the web-extension of my personality. I can also hear things that are not very loud. I prefer not to shout, and prefer when things don't shout at me, either. But a healthy volume isn't bad, either. Hence, what I hope is a pretty large dynamic range in the selections at pianonoise.

It is surprising how much volume different speakers or headphones will generate. You could try finding ones more powerful--I've gone through a couple of sets and it has changed my level setting, though I generally choose one spot on the volume knob and listen to each file at that level to see if it feels acceptably loud or soft. That has remained consistent since I got my last pair of headphones.

Of course, the easiest way to deal with this is just to go somewhere else. I mean, who am I to suggest that you change your behavior or even put additional effort into listening just to listen to files off of one website on the internet? Still, if you are willing to try some things, you might therefore be willing to adapt to other habits or strains of thought as well. And that--you never quite know--that could lead to something incredible.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Sunday Morning (part two)

[part one here]

I've just spent the last half hour improvising keyboard parts with a rock band. Now I have only a few seconds to get on my organ shoes and prepare for whatever opening voluntary I've chosen. It might be Bach, or something Ive written, some 19th Century French colossus, or a rare piece I've collected from hours on the internet and in the library; sometimes it is on the piano, though for the past few years I've gotten so interested in the organ--this classically trained pianist--that I play that instrument most of the time.

I've got a few seconds to wait. The folks at this service are awfully friendly, and they like to greet each other. I'll wait for a natural lull and then begin chiming the opening hymn so they will take their seats. Then I grab some stops and away we go.  That they listen to the opening voluntary is as unusual in some churches as it is a privilege in mine; when the concept was introduced a few years ago some were afraid that it would cause the air to become chilly with unfriendliness if persons were not encouraged to talk over everything musical. I have no intention of interfering with fellowship just because we also promote respectful listening, so I make sure they get a solid minute to say hello to each other (even though many of them have been doing it for at least ten minutes already) before I call them to attention and begin to play.

After that it's time for the Call to Worship and the Opening Hymn. I have probably not practiced this. With the book propped open on the stand (assuming I haven't misplaced it) I chose stops, texture, and find new harmonies as the text prompts. If I like what I did here I might do it again at 10:30. The singing is often passable if it's a familiar hymn, but it's a small crowd at 8, so I rarely employ more than a couple of foundation stops. I do reserve the right to blow them out of the building on one verse of one hymn at each service, if it is the climactic point of the whole thing; otherwise, I try to give them a fighting chance. I have found, however, that if you take the whole consideration thing too far that it just makes the singing even weaker. The only solution is to play slightly louder than is good for balance; that way the small congregation doesn't have to feel like they are noticeable. I am the one who gets paid not to be anonymous.

We continue with a Prayer of Confession, which is followed by a few seconds of quiet organ improvisation whilst the people ponder their faults, then they are assured by the liturgist, and our soloist steps forward to begin the Anthem, which we may or may not have practiced once. I do not hold to the philosophy that the early service is mere practice for the late one; I want it to sound just as good as any other, no matter whether only two dozen people show up or not. Notwithstanding, with so many pieces to a Sunday Morning, it is difficult for everyone, volunteers included, to schedule time to practice, and it is really an asset to be able to sound as though you had practiced even when you have not. In a church this may be one of the most important things you can do, in fact.

The anthem concluded, I listen to the scriptures, and morning prayer, and at the conclusion of the Lord's Prayer play a short musical response which varies with the season or service. It may be whatever the choir is singing at 10:30, or a short piece from the back of the hymnal (the "amens'") or something I think related to the sermon, such as a hymn we aren't singing. Then it is time for the sermon, or as the pastor's kid (whom I teach composition) puts it, "Dad's solo."

I slip out the back; it is time to head over to the Worship and Life Center. I take note of the time on my cell phone which lives in the my jacket pocket. If it is 8:24 or less we are making good time. I've timed the sermon at the Saturday Evening Service so I know just how much time I've got to get back to the sanctuary. Next it is time to return to the band and see if they want to go over one or two songs again, or anything that I didn't have time to go over with them during the first half-hour.

They've been rehearsing the whole time I was away, of course. In fact, occasionally they will make changes to the songs while I am not there. This makes life interesting. My favorite episode in this regard came one morning when, near the end of the song, Doug, the electric guitarist walked up behind me and whispered, "we've made some changes......D ......C......G...." and fed me the new chord changes about two beats before I played each of them. It went smoothly, and no one would have known anything nearly went amiss.

One morning something did go amiss. Two of the songs had been reversed without my knowledge and I was the one who started the song. I had just enough time to wonder why the heck the drummer was counting off so fast before it was time to begin. About a measure or two in Doug told the congregation that I hadn't been given the memo and that the song was actually going to be X instead of Y, and I made a transition (I was told it was smooth but I didn't think so) into the new song, which was a half step lower than the one I was playing (ugh. Try that one on short notice some time.) That's the only time I remember than happening, though.

After the last song is finished it is time to head back over to the sanctuary and finish up the first service. I am still watching the clock--downbeat of the service #2 is at 9 o'clock.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Who really wrote the 8 Little Preludes and fugues (part four)

Last week I finally made a trip to the library to do some research into the problem of the 8 Little preludes and fugues and to find out why there is a debate over their authorship. Before I did that, I examined why many of us don't want to do our own research or consider the positions of those professionals who spend appreciable portions of their lives tracking down sources and considering styles when those positions conflict with what we think we already know. Being challenged does not go down easily in the human psychology, particularly when one's tools are unchanging certainty and little sense of how someone else even came to a different conclusion in the first place--in other words, lacking an understanding of research methods and a thorough acquaintance with musical styles of the time, it is not easy for the average music maker to get his or her head around the idea that some composer they've never heard of might have written pieces they love instead of a composer they so revere.

Of course, this doesn't automatically mean that the experts are always right, either. In this case, there seem to be quite a lot of differences of opinion, even if they are sometimes (and only sometimes) grounded in a lot of erudition. There does, however, seem to be broad agreement that the one person who probably did NOT write these pieces is Johann Sebastian Bach. Why?

Basically, there are two reasons. There are a lot of faults and imperfections in these pieces--this was my argument a couple of installments ago, and it seems to be in the musicological literature as well--and so a mature Bach would probably not commit them to paper. For one thing, the voice writing is often not independent--the pedals double the left hand in several places, for instance, or there are places that may not actually be parallel octaves or fifths but which come pretty close and would qualify as clumsy and unclear. The master of counterpoint doesn't seem to have been at work here--at least in the fugues. And the short motives in the preludes are developed in a pretty predictable, paint-by-numbers kind of way much of the time, which doesn't suggest that a musical genius was at work on those, either. On the other hand, proposing a young Bach as author has its problems as well.

I had already suggested in passing that perhaps Bach might have been very young when he wrote these, in which case those inelegant passages might be explained. He may have been Bach, but he still had to learn his craft. But in that case we have a problem of style--namely, that the Vivaldi-esque sounding sequences and short repeated figures--an Italian influence--would have been unknown to Bach until (and this can be pinpointed rather accurately) the middle of 1718. But even more problematic is that the galant style of many of these preludes (C and F in particular) seem much more likely to be the product of the generation after Bach--his son's generation.

This is the broad canvas; I'll paint on it more specifically next week as I describe my trip to the library and get into some of the research in more depth.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Warning Label

I've often felt that the listening archive at pianonoise really ought to come with a warning label. Not for explicit lyrics (there aren't any) or any of the usual suspects, such as anything that you think might turn your kids into Liberals, but because, no matter what your expectations, notions about music, personal philosophy of "the Nice," or current mood, something in there is bound to disrespectfully crash into your neatly balanced world.

Probably the key word here is "variety." Variety is no respecter of persons. I once coined a definition which could belong in The Devil's Dictionary: "Variety: something to offend everyone." The friend I told it to found it offensive.

But as I've traveled this globe, thither and yon, physically and mentally, I've come in to quite a number of ideas about music, some of which clash fundamentally with others over the very function of the noisy art, and, finding something of interest in each, I've collected them all, had them stuffed and put on the pianonoise wall. (ok, that's a pretty offensive image; not to mention outdated) Some are from several centuries ago, in countries far away, and others have come into existence quite recently.

Actually, that's one of my own issues with the archive--it doesn't have enough recent music. There's a problem with that, a word called copyright, and the fact that most copyright holders don't have the decency to even write back to deny you permission to use their work. Even a piece written nearly a century ago may be behind this copyright wall, and if it is also out of print that pretty much guarantees the work a silent death. I've been fortunate in that a few composers who themselves have control over their works have given me permission to post my recordings of them. There are also works published with Creative Commons Licenses of various sorts which allow you to use the pieces in certain ways without obtaining permission. I'm exploring those avenues. Nonetheless, the catalogue is tilted toward works in the Public Domain.

That's still a lot of ground, however. And if you have your volume turned up the first thing you'll notice is a great dynamic variance. Some of the pieces start loudly. I'd keep my finger on the button at the start of a selection I didn't know if I were you.

But that's just it--it's not the works we know that might cause problems. It's the ones we've never heard of. And even though 99% of the public won't touch anything classical if they don't have to, even that 1%  hasn't heard of the majority of the literature available to them in the so-called classical vein. And I make it my business to look for rare and unusual works, some of the time. However, the item right next door to it in the catalogue might be right down Main Street. When you are listing things in alphabetical order, there is no telling what sort of musical neighbors you will run into.

Besides the so-called classical group, which is a convenient way of lumping together over four centuries and at least a continent's worth of different types of music so that people who like all of their music to be in four minute spurts and about puppy love to be able to easily avoid all of it, there is a bit of jazz, gospel, ragtime, and various fusions--some very intellectual, some a bit folk, and you never really know what it is going to be just by title because I haven't done the nice thing and categorized it.

Of course, offended isn't the only thing that might happen. You could be bored. One of my 'staff composers' made it his business to explore intentional boredom in art--I'm looking at you, Erik Satie. And if you get past that you still might not stick around long to hear the a-tonal effusions of a few of the pieces by---no, I'll let you find those land mines yourself. And in addition to the various moods these pieces might arouse--passion, inspiration, fear, anger--you might just be puzzled. That's a reaction that's happened to more than one artist before. Some of them seem to enjoy it.

There's a risk when you hit that play button, particularly if you've not heard of the piece before. You can't be sure whether it's going to conform to your ideas of what music is or should be, or whether it will grab you by the scruff of the neck and take you somewhere you've never been. If you go with it it might take you somewhere wonderful, or just drop you off on a random street corner and vanish. Then what do you do? Pick up and keep going, I suppose. But you won't be quite the same after one of those encounters, will you?

Don't say I didn't warn you....

But hey, if it makes you feel any better, if you don't like it, you get your money back.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Sunday Morning (part one)

Today is "Take your blog reader to work" day.

Since one of my jobs is that of church musician, I thought I'd give you some idea of what goes on in the environs of Faith UMC on a Sunday morning, since I'm there for much of it. Come along....

It's about 7:05. I've just arrived. I'm a little cross at myself for being late--I wanted to get here at seven. But I'm also looking forward to the challenge of the day, expectant but ready for a long and energy using session. I may also be groggy. It depends on the morning. When I enter the sanctuary it is empty and quiet. With luck, the stained glass catches the sunlight and there are reflections on the church pews creating a little Aurora Borealis. This is my only chance to practice on my own, so if I've got something I need to go over, or just warm up for, I'd better do it now. That's why I'm here early.

7:20 The ushers wander in; we exchange pleasantries. Now the anthem singer for the first service is here, too. At one time the pastor came for his short rehearsal at this time (we had a brief experiment with the Psalter but that's stopped happening.) The rest of the morning will not be my own, hence the practice earlier. Now it is time to rehearse with the 8 o'clock version of the choir, who is usually one very dedicated soloist who has gotten up early. Sometimes it is a student from the university, often it is someone from the church choir, and often it is the same wonderful soul!

Singing at 8 can't be easy. Sometimes a singer has a touch of a frog--that can be interesting. A while back one of the students liked to sing everything a key or two lower at the 8 o'clock service so I transposed everything. My mind isn't very agile this early, either, but it works. Usually. Once I had a piece of music that I knew in one key written in a different key and the soloist asked me to put it in yet another key. That was a little confusing!

We go over the anthem once, and then I have to hurry across the hall. The band is waiting for me. They are rehearsing for the 9 o'clock service. They start at 7:30, more or less.  Doug asks me which of the six or seven pieces are piano heavy so we can do those while I am with them. I won't make the entire rehearsal, which takes place in our Worship and Life Center, one of three worship spaces in this church. It is the most recent (2006). While we rehearse, I'll keep an eye on my phone and at 7:59, whether we are in the middle of a song or not, I'll run back over to the North Sanctuary for the start of the 8 o'clock service. The band keeps going without me. We have two guitars, a bass, drums, keyboards (that's me) and usually about three or four singers. Sometimes the song begins with just the piano, though, so we need to get to that one now, and if it is the first thing in the service I'd better not miss the downbeat. So I am constantly watching the clock.

We go over about four songs, usually only once, but occasionally twice if we get lost at some point. Then we stop and talk about it ("I thought we were supposed to repeat the second chorus." "Is this the one with six beats to the bridge?" "I'm not getting my harmony part, sorry." etc.) But we have to be quick. We also rehearsed Thursday, probably, and only for the week to come. Still, putting six or seven songs together on that little rehearsal means we either have to know what we are doing or figure it out fast. Our leader calls us a "musical MASH unit"--stitch a song up, and hope it makes it through the service! Our members are talented. Two of them had gigs with the early REO Speedwagon, a nationally (internationally?) known group in the US which originated in Champaign. Then there's me, the classically trained pianist. But I can fake it pretty well. One member of the 9 o'clock service thinks I sound like Bruce Horsnby. It's not by design; I've barely heard any of his stuff!

7:59. I literally run across the stage, out the door, across the Gathering Area, and to my post at the organ to start the 8 o'clock service. Out pastor is still talking about the Illini. But in mere moments it will be handshake time and the first service will begin.

Next week: part two

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Off balance

Today's selection is a little Minuet.

This isn't one of the most earth-shattering pieces in the piano literature, exactly. In fact, there are hundreds, nay thousands, of these little movements in the piano corpus. The name is taken from a dance that the rich folks at court liked to dance back in the 18th century. It was, you might say, quite a fad--not that the powers that were necessarily believed in fads. They liked to think of things being eternal, like their own power. In terms of geopolitical alliances and the organization of time and space, you might say they liked to think big. But when it came to the Minuet, they proceeded in baby steps.

That's actually where the word gets its punch. You'll note it is similar to the word "minute" as in small (and if you accidentally stressed the other syllable, as in unit of time, that's pretty small, too--or was until seconds and fractions thereof came along more recently). The minuet is a dance comprising small steps. Only peasants use large ones. Physical exertion is SOOO not cool.

The reason I'm sharing this one with you today, though, is not because it is typical of the times, but because it isn't. There is something odd about this one. Oh, sure, it's got a nice, aristocratic air about it, but something doesn't quite fit. Listen to this less-than-everything-is-going-well phrase.


This isn't exactly the sort of phrase you would expect in a minuet; it is not something the nobles would want to hear. It is a downer. And, in fact, in terms of musical coherence, it doesn't need to be there at all, since the phrase before it leads perfectly into the phrase after it, making this strange moment seem harmonically unnecessary. I'm going to play the minuet portion (part one) of this piece for you without that little phrase; notice how you wouldn't miss it.


But that isn't the way Joe Haydn wrote it. Right as we are about to make a triumphant return to the opening phrase, after the little outbound journey that is the common property of nearly every sonata movement, and the preparation for the return, he sticks in that little phrase you heard first. It not only delays the return by a few measures, it seems a little out of place. For one thing, it is the only place in the entire sonata (including movements one and three) where Haydn uses the minor mode.

 Haydn: Sonata Hob. 9 in F: II. Minuet

Oddly, in terms of architecture, the additional phrase seems to restore the balance required by the long outer sections. But psychologically, it takes us where we don't expect to go, and whispers to us brooding things, but only for an instant before the party returns in full force and gaiety returns. Does it now seem forced? The gaiety, I mean.

Maybe I'm making too much of this. Maybe I'm trying to make Haydn sound like Shotakovich.

But I wonder. What made Haydn insert that strange little phrase, and is it going to keep me up at night?

Monday, January 12, 2015

Salieri and I

A couple of weeks ago, Salieri and I had something in common. We both wanted to bump off Mozart.

That's because I had managed, mainly by putting links on Facebook (via Twitter), to get over 100 people (each) to listen to about 8 of my Christmas postings--mainly piano improvisations on carols, and a few organ pieces of various mintings, and a little written piano music by my friend Marteau. I was hoping by the end of December to be able to look at my web stats and see all of the top ten as holiday selections. But that darned Mozart kept spoiling it. A few of you (very few, but's it's a very large file, so it packs a wallop) took it into your heads to listen to a set of variations on the tune popularly known as "Twinkle, twinkle" transcribed for organ (by myself) and it wouldn't leave the top ten. Even after Satie and Brahms and a few others had packed their bags and been replaced by Christmas fare, after nearly the entire list was clean of anything that was not Christmas, Herr Mozart's piece-out-of-season kept popping up. I continued putting up carols and other holiday fare, hoping it would go away. But it wouldn't leave. Then Beethoven got involved and I knew it was over.

I should mention at this point that web stats are pretty harmless. A few people I've mentioned web stats to in casual conversation get pretty freaked out about privacy and I should stress that I can't see you in your underwear. All I can tell about my listeners and lookers is how many pages they accessed, or files, or how much memory was taken up, and what the IP address of my most avid "fans" are. In most cases this is just a string of numbers that don't tell me anything. In a few cases, the cable company or the internet provider includes the names of the locality in the address so I know what city that anonymous user is from. "Oh, that's nice" I'll think. "A local." I can tell if somebody from Champaign, for example, listened to about a gigabyte worth of music (no telling what) yesterday. That's about it. And I can tell which pieces of music made the top ten in terms of number of requests, and how much memory was taken (i.e., whether most listeners listened to the whole thing or just a bit of it) but not who did the listening.

Are we good? ok.

As it happens, I count it as one of the successes of the season that so many people listened to so many of my pieces. I can't know if anyone enjoyed them, but at least I can tell they were listening. Thanks.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Now that I've called you all here...

There's an old Peanuts cartoon in which Linus does a very peculiar thing. In the first panel you can see him making a snowball. Then that snowball turns into a snowman. But he makes another. And another. Pretty soon you can see he's got quite a collection of snowmen, all of them in a grid, facing the same direction. In the last panel, he's built himself a podium, and, standing at it, he addresses the snowpeople by saying "I suppose you're wondering why I called you all here today...."

Linus addressing a phalanx of inanimate snowpersons is not all that unlike posting things on the internet. You have no idea much of the time whom you are addressing, and most of the time they don't answer. Occasionally you'll get a comment or an email from someone, and then it is almost like having a regular conversation. But the real fun comes from checking your webstats and discovering the searches people did to find you. What questions did they want answers to, and were they likely to find them? The quotes below are actual search strings that people typed into their web browsers which brought them to pianonoise.

I've already written about this phenomenon here and here. But for the latest installment of mailbag, hang on to your seats, because here it is. Remember, these are letters people didn't actually write, so if I don't actually answer some of them, we're even:

"A major quote by a professional pianist that is very helpful"

This leaves plenty of room, doesn't it? So long as you don't ask for a definition of 'helpful.' What was the inquirer seeking, I wonder? Inspiration to practice? Insight into the musical process? A cure for cancer? Of just something to post on the bulletin board of your 6th grade music classroom?

I don't know what this person found, though I do recall typing the phrase "that didn't seem very helpful....but when a professional says something"--I think that's from my article on Bach's quote about playing the organ. Just a guess.

"ability to listen to music in head"

ok, I've written about that one here, if you're curious.

"Beethoven had trouble paying attention"

I have to wonder about the motivation of the interlocutor. Was this person looking for justification? It seems as if it might be the musical equivalent of "Einstein failed Algebra," which once furnished lots of little Einsteins with superior retorts to their parental units. I mean, if Beethoven had ADD, how bad is it if I have it, too? Not so much, right? It also reminds me of a story I read in childhood about some genius composer who was trudging through his piano exercises when suddenly, looking out the window, his fingers began to create a glorious improvisation based on how he felt about the great outdoors. Exercises be darned, this kid was expressing himself from the heart, and sincerely, meaning without practice. This is a pretty good example of how non-musical geniuses often see the process of creation, which is one part true and six parts without-a-clue-how-it-really-happens. Anyhow, I think the story may have been about Beethoven. And, naturally, it's the only part of the book I can remember, and it probably was completely made up by the author.

Somebody was looking for some sheet music for a piece by Yanni. Good luck finding that around here! Someone else was looking for a "church piano standard repertoire list." I might compile one of those some day but it wouldn't be very conventional. I'm not a big fan of the standard "church" repertoire for a number of reasons which I'll complain about in a future installment.

I'm really curious as to what the "bwv 543 Bach science project" is. The piece in question is Bach's Prelude (and fugue) in A Minor, catalogue number 543. What that has to do with a science project I don't know. I'll have to put that on my "when I'm bored here are some things to google" list.

Somebody wishing to send a question to my question-and-answers page here might want to know "good questions to ask piano players." I wish I had a list. You get asked a lot of the same questions, and people are obviously trying to make a connection after concerts and at parties but don't really know what to say. I wish I could tell them, although a simple sure-fire question probably doesn't get at the nature of the beast. If you know enough to ask informed questions you wouldn't need such a list, and they probably wouldn't work in all situations anyway. Here's an idea: follow my blog. Questions will come. You can even send them via the internet!

"How do pianists memorize so many notes?" I've written about that before. But it really is the wrong question. It is like asking how a Shakespearian actor can memorize so many letters. Letters form words, phrases, convey meaning. That's how you memorize. Figure out what those little bits add up to. And then spend a lot of time working hard at mastering the material.

"is transposing a good habit should one learn all the keys" I get a lot of questions asked out of context. That is, I have no idea about the experience or experiences of the person who asked the question, what their goals are, or their abilities, or their work habits. In different situations I would answer these questions differently. In a vacuum the answer would be yes. But there is quite a difference between preparing for an international competition and playing for fun in your own living room. Is taking the trouble to learn the patterns of all the major and minor keys worth it? It is for me. It helps me to understand the big picture. It helps me improvise, sight-read easily in any key, move a piece down to where a singer feels comfortable. It's about agility, and understanding. But it might be too much wasted time for a pianist who can't get there or just doesn't want to.

A lot of life's questions can't be answered on the internet for that very reason. Such casual and incidental contact between persons seems to rarely yield much value until time is spent in understanding and recognizing. And, eventually, maybe it will be. In the meantime, though, some of those questions can be pretty entertaining.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

And a number of partridges in a grove of trees, too

I pose a question of no consequence to anyone as I lie here resting and many pieces of music did I play during the month of December?

It is bound to be a very inexact count since I don't have all the artifacts necessary for the reconstruction. But let's try, shall we?

Now in a regular weekend at church I play four services. The Saturday evening service only has a prelude, postlude, four hymns (all chosen by the congregation at the time) and a doxology.  Seven pieces. Sunday morning at 8am features a prelude, opening hymn, meditation improvisation, solo anthem, prayer response, offertory, closing hymn, and postlude. That's eight more. None of these pieces is likely to be the same as any for Saturday night. Then there is the 9 o'clock service. Usually this consists of about six praise songs (with the band). At 10:30 we have the same line up as 8, except with a full choir and an additional middle hymn (nine more). So, 7+8+6+9=30 pieces, more or less. Not including any rehearsals (which probably means I played at least 8 of those pieces at least twice.)

Ok, 30 a morning times four. 120 pieces of music at church. Don't forget Christmas Eve, now!

I need the bulletins for that one. Well, I can take a wild guess. I'll spare you the calculations.
5pm service:10
7pm service: 11
11pm service:8

I'm not going to break it down into soloists, band, choir, congregational hymns, organ solo pieces, and so on.

However, I just realized that two of those Sundays were special music Sundays. On one of them, at the 10:30 service, the choir sang seven anthems. (Let's add five pieces to our total; take away a couple for no organ offertory and maybe one fewer hymns--I don't think so now, but I'll be conservative anyway.) And the 9am service the following week was a musical with 17 musical cues (I had to know that as I played for all of them), at least 10 of which count as full pieces, and the others represent smaller bits of pieces. Let's say 12, so we'll add six more to that week's count. So, 120+5+6+----Christmas eve=29      total from church services=160

Now we move into the concerts. Children's Chorus Winter Concert: ----15
They sang with the symphony, too, but I was replaced by an orchestra (imagine!). They sang at the country club; I played (a mere five pieces, there.) Also played a short gig for the Rotary Club; the Chorale sang (three pieces) and, to make up the balance of the time, I played a couple of carols for singing and improvised a piece at the instigation of the impresario. Six more.  total, 26.

Mind you, we aren't including rehearsals here. This is just stage time in front of an audience or before a congregation. If we add the rehearsals, we can easily double, if not triple, the total. I'm not adding any parties, either. There weren't so many this year, but it still adds up.

I must be leaving out a gig or two....

Finally, the New Year's Eve concert at the Virginia, which involved The Chorale singing 14 pieces of music. I also played (memory don't fail me now) 6 pieces on the Mighty Wurlitzer before the show and during intermission, also three more for the sing-along, plus Auld Lang Syne at the end. That's 10 on the organ, so a total of 24 pieces for the concert. I think that's a record low, actually. I didn't play for the other act of the evening, an unaccompanied barbershop quartet (they were quite good).

Add in a couple of funerals and a wedding that week also, and you have the month of December.

(let's say about 18 more for those, ball park)

So I'm coming up with....228 different pieces of music (including different arrangements of the same tune) and some repetition in the church services (in which I think I left out all those doxologies...oh well)

It's a low number, and in no way represents the frenzy of activity that was actually experienced at the time (remember those rehearsals? Heck, let's just double the number) and does not include any practice time on my part, or the pieces I recorded for Most of the improvised piano pieces, by the way, were recorded in October. Sorry. It's why they exist, though.

I could also break them down by category, as in number of accompaniments, solo pieces, number of singers, instrumentalists, and instruments I played, but I'm not an accountant and this post has already reached sufficient ridicularity. If we totaled up every time I played any piece of music during the month for any purpose whatever, including repetitions, I'm sure we'd be up over 600. But that's just a wild guess.

Let's just say I played a lot of music last month and my fingers are tired.

By the way, this year's recipient of the Most Annoying Carol Award goes to "Have Yourself a Merry little Christmas" which I heard 6 times before Thanksgiving, mostly at the grocery store.

Also, the record for most verses of Silent Night played during a 24 hour period still stands at 25, from the year before the coming of the Worship and Life Center in 2006, when we had four Christmas Eve Services, and Christmas Day was a Sunday. (This doesn't count any rehearsal verses either.)*

*We actually sang Silent Night on Christmas Day, too. I have no idea what our pastor was thinking.

Monday, January 5, 2015

I'm having on off week

In case I didn't spend enough time complaining about the complexity of Christmas in my last two blogs, allow me to pound the point home by collapsing into this chair and writing one of the shortest blog posts in recent memory.

That's because I'm trying to take a break this week from deadlines and pressure and concerts, and just relax for a couple of days. It may involve a bit of practicing--I'm not a purist--but I'll try to lay low and accomplish very little in order to recuperate, regenerate, and all of those other wonderful words that being with re-.

In order to share my mood with you, allow me to play for you something I recorded last August. It's part of a Partita by Bach (no. 4 in D): the Sarabande movement.

I'll talk about the fascinating history of the Sarabande another time; for now, let's just enjoy some peace and quiet together.

Bach: Sarabande from Partita no. 4 in D

Friday, January 2, 2015


Please understand, I'm not complaining.

Well, alright, maybe a little. But it's subtle, and in context. Hear me out.

(Strange and interesting things happen the more you use your brain; when you think about things that you aren't encouraged to think about you can come to some unusual conclusions about them.)

Take, for instance, the so-called parable of the talents. A man goes on a journey and leaves three servants in charge of his finances. To the first he gives 10 talents, which is something in the millions of dollars in today's money, to the second, five, and to the last, a mere million or so--two talents.

If you are familiar with the story, you know how it ends. The first two servants invest the money and manage to double it (must have put it in some pretty risky stocks and gotten lucky). The third hides his and does nothing with it. Not even a passbook savings account.

The first two servants are rewarded upon the master's return, and the third is sent packing. And here's the line I thought about. Speaking to the first two servants in turn, the master declares: because you have been faithful in a few things (there's an understatement; remember it's in the millions)--because you have been faithful in a few things I will put you in charge of more things. Enter the joy of the kingdom!

Happy ending, right? Well, is it?

The reward for faithful service is to have to do it again, only now the stakes are higher? No rest for the faithful, is there?

I'm reminded of another quote, this time from the Hebrew Bible: "To those from whom much is given, much will be required." (which in turn reminds me of my 8th grade English teacher's favorite moment from "A Christmas Carol" (one of them, anyhow)--in which Scrooge asks Marley's ghost what he wants of him, and the answer is simply "much!")

Maybe I'm bringing this up because it is nearing the end of the Christmas rush and I'm pretty tired. It's been going on for a month, now. I remember reading a blog from an organist about fun things you could do for your listeners during the Christmas season with the admonition to start preparing now, and being amused because I had just gotten home from one of our big church services--choir Sunday, which came the day after the Children's Chorus had their big concert. In other words, prepare was hardly the word for it--I was already in the middle of it. And that was early December, which was already two weeks into my annual Christmas rush. Now it's nearly a month later and I'm still not finished.

Well, ok, technically the last holiday related event was our New Year's Eve concert at the Virginia Theater with The Chorale. It's a fun and unique event each year. But I'm worn out, and I'm still not able to rest. That's mostly because we have a wedding tomorrow with special organ music and a funeral about 90 minutes after that, then our Saturday evening church service. And I'm having to pull those pieces completely out of my posterior because at this point there just hasn't been any time to practice until today and now I'm also having to really watch my energy level. There will be naps between everything, I think. I'm spending today on the couch because if I stand up too long I get dizzy. And yet I still haven't gotten sick at all this semester. Is it safe to say I've made it for another year?

The number of concerts or church services or gigs I've taken part in, or more specifically, the number of different talents required to make them all work (from improvisation to sight-reading to skipping beats for singers to schlepping equipment to keeping your head amidst distractions such as when the music falls off the rack) seems overwhelming taken as a whole. They must be experienced in sequence to make them possible--that is, one event at a time, with all that is needed to make it work. I suppose the only reason they happen at all is that because I CAN do all of that I am ASKED to do it. And I like to think that the singers and conductors and actors and pastors who work with me feel secure in having me there to support their efforts as well. It is tiring. But it is a very great privilege. And I am blessed to be able to do it each year. Now as I near the finish line I hope to feel a pleasant sense of exhaustion. And I have received much thanks for it as well.

In fact, the outpouring of thanks and camaraderie I've experienced this holiday season is truly a blessing. And knowing I've been able to use practically every ability I have to make the season brighter for others is the best feeling on earth. And maybe next week, when I've had a chance to process it all, when the rush has finally stopped rushing, I'll get to really enjoy my remembrances of all those things that flew by at the time.

But I seriously need a nap right now!