Friday, February 27, 2015

Holding forth at the organ

If you are an organist, and have always wondered how to impose your will on a congregation, I have your long-sought answer:

First, don't think of it that way. It's bad form.

Second, you have to be subtle about it. Well, not subtle, exactly, just....flexible.

...which is a paradox, right? I love a good paradox. Do you?

We're going to get along fine.

Now then, about last week. We had a little hymn going. A favorite of the pastor's, it seems. Now this little hymn had a bit of a fermata at the end of the second to last line.

If you've been a church organist for a while, you see one of those, and you ask yourself a few questions internally, in the run up to the fermata. 1) does the congregation know this hymn? answer: probably not. I don't recall us doing it more than once or twice in the ten years I've been their organist. 2) how musically literate is the congregation? answer: the choir is, but not universally. Besides, they routinely ignore musical symbols and have to be reminded to observe them. As for the congregation at large, they are average folks who have forgotten what they learned in music class, and many of them probably either won't notice the fermata or don't know what it's for (I'd vote for the former as the majority position; you can't underestimate people's ability not to notice things).

All of which means that if you are going to observe the fermata, it will have to be audibly spelled out for them. So how does one do that?

The first clue is in the introduction. I played through this section, observing the fermata. Now, an idealist would be under the impression that the congregation would be listening carefully and imbibing the various clues as to how to sing the hymn when it was their turn, particularly since they maybe don't know it. But that's probably assuming too much. Instead, they'll have spent at least half the introduction fumbling with their hymnal and the rest clearing their throat. However, the folks at Faith do manage to receive at least one important element every time:

The introduction sets the tempo. I recently heard an organist online whip through an introduction and then, when the people came in, the tempo was worlds slower. That's not how things work at Faith. Part of the point of the introduction is to set the tempo. And it is the same speed at which the hymn will be played throughout. Also we set the stage via the key, and remind people how the tune goes. But the tempo is pretty important. And they pick up on that and are ready to join me at the same tempo. Yeah, congregation!

The choir and the pastor are also good about figuring out when to come in. I imagine I deserve a bit of credit for that, but they have good ears and can hear the musical cues I throw out so we don't all have to stare at our shoes during some enormous grand pause and can simply hit the ground running. Now then....

The fermata. It worked, if I recall, on the first verse. I think it happened on the second. I thought I had it made. Then it failed on the third attempt. And finally, the last time, it worked beautifully. Ok, so what happened the third time?

The organist is a leader. But there are two ways to lead. One is from the front, another is from behind. Sometimes you get out in front and set the agenda (or the tempo). Other times you are there to make the congregation sound good--i.e... to facilitate. I may have been doing a little too much facilitating at the wrong time on the third verse. The stop selection may have been too quiet, and I don't think I gave enough of a ritardando on the three chords leading up to the fermata, which is what made the fourth try so obvious, and got everyone to stop. Also, on that last verse, I set louder stops.

My general philosophy as a hymn-leader is to do just enough and not more. If it is a familiar hymn and the choir and/or congregation sounds good, I often don't play the melody. Then I am an accompanist. The organ part may sound like the accompaniment to an anthem, or it may be spare and only serve to keep time and remind of the pitch. There are also times when the organ stops altogether and the choir and congregation sing a verse entirely unaccompanied. I frequently do this without advance warning, and it is based on my listening to the quality of the singing and determining whether folks sound like they would be comfortable without an organist. If they don't need me, my role changes.

There are other times, of course, when it is obvious they are hanging on for dear life, and I keep a firm tempo, a full organ sound, and make the melody obvious. The difference is in the listening, and for me, the ear is the primary arbiter when I am playing hymns. What is in the page is secondary--the ear keeps me oriented.

Which is pretty handy sometimes, because what happened on that third verse is that the entire choir completely blew through the fermata. Before I knew it, they were on the next downbeat--without their organist! But a recording of the hymn, if such existed, would not seem to indicate that anything was amiss. That's because while I was recovering from my surprise, I was re-configuring my meter map. Beat one was all congregation and no organ. Beat two was where the organist started up again, having immediately reinterpreted the downbeat, and knowing exactly where he was rhythmically. So in fact, it sounded exactly as if I had planned it that way (there are times I drop out for a beat or two on purpose). Of course, it probably helped that I was already on alert for such a thing happening before it happened, but listening and reacting quickly can keep ensemble disasters from happening.

Slowing down, obviously and loudly, going from facilitator to leader-by-making-himself-prominent to the ears of the congregation, I got that last fermata to stick. But I didn't hold it very long; that seemed wise. However, had I held that chord longer, I might have gotten the fermata to last a bit longer.

You see, I am an accompanist of the congregation, and they are an accompanist of me, if by that term we mean that we have to adjust to each other. All of us are raising our voices together, and by teaching the congregation to listen for musical cues from the organist, and by the organist doing the same thing for the congregation, we establish the importance of everyone doing this together. Nobody sings or plays at the expense of the other, we all contribute. And we all sing lustily or muddle through together as well, although that last is why I am sitting at a pitched instrument with a doctorate in music--so I can help with the unfamiliar and the difficult. Sometimes I have to carry the congregation and sometimes they do just fine on their own. We have our different roles, but we are one body.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Don't Let a wall of snow hit you on the way out!

Now that February is nearly over, I would just like to say to it, "good riddance."

The second month of the year and I have a history of not getting along. I don't think I'm really unusual in this respect. Most of the people I meet here in Illinois complain about the weather these days. The rest are currently in Florida, or Hawaii.

It's cold; it's dark; it's dreary. Christmas was over a long time ago. We societally binged on that chance to ameliorate the gloom with lights and cheer before we even felt the need (we're a little challenged in the impulse-control department) and now the snow is no longer a novelty, and the cold has nothing to do but to better its records (minus 4 so far tonight as I write this; that's in Fahrenheit), and the darkness, while technically diminishing each day, is not making the days noticeably longer just yet. I don't imagine I qualify as having Seasonal Affective Disorder, or Depression, but these days are just harder to live through. My overloaded schedule is making me tired, and I'm not feeling very ambitious.

And yet I've managed to record both Schumann's Scenes from Childhood and Satie's Sports and Divertissments this month, along with a delightful set of Rameau pieces, and a handful of pieces for the organ, including a few improvisations and have been practicing a few other things on the piano. Despite this, I feel like my productivity is down. It may be, or it might be an impression.

That's the first thing I do to combat these feelings: recognize that reality and my perceptions about reality might not be the same thing, particularly when it is cold and dark all the time. Other than having a few valid reasons for somewhat elevated stress, life isn't really any worse. I know what's causing this: it's the weather. I can't do anything about it, but it will change eventually. And when it does I'll have survived another February. Some years are harder than others.

There have been a few days when I haven't been particularly productive at all, but these tend to be on Mondays after weekends packed with extras--4 church services and a choir rehearsal always, but sometimes a late-night gig or a marathon rehearsal into the bargain. In that case, I forgive myself for not pursuing projects I would like to; get some rest, write some blogs, and get on with it the next day.

But it's February's final week, now. I'm taking a little hiatus from practicing this week, which is the only thing I really can take a haitus from (I can get away without voluntarily touching the piano and organ for a few days and still manage to sound fine at rehearsals and services). I'll be back by next week, I'm sure. Right now, I'm simply acknowledging that I need a break, and since I'm not going anywhere once again, February and I will have to do battle alone. But I've been watching the calendar and it hasn't got much time left. Soon it will just be another discarded page on the calendar. Take that, February! I always knew you were two days short of a real month.

And don't think you can get out of your impending doom by sending us more snow. It's pretty, but unless there's an avalanche I think we'll survive it just fine. But thanks for trying. It's given me a chance to make another hot cherry pie, and stock up on the cocoa and chai tea.

I'll watch you rage all you want outside, and be warm.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The music around here is clearly going downhill

Next week I intend to start discussing music I'm going to play this spring at a house concert in Champaign. But I'll let you get a jump on it by playing for you this very very short piece by a very interesting fellow named Erik Satie. We've gotten quite a bit of snow this weekend, the powdery kind, and it would be perfect for sledding, if Champaign were not exceedingly flat. A popular t-shirt here reads "Champaign, on the foothills of mount level."

Here is Mr. Satie's musical version of the activity of sledding. If you've got someplace to go, perfect. I promise this will only take 30 seconds. And when you've recovered, we can talk about it a little next week.

Satie: Le Traineau

Friday, February 20, 2015

Mr. Sweelinck and I

For Ash Wednesday this year I played an organ piece by Jan Sweelinck. Intrinsic to this particular service each year is the reminder of our own mortality, so I chose a set of variations on "My young life has an end" as the prelude, which, if Mr. Sweelinck himself ever played the piece at his church, is probably when his congregants would have heard it too.

Whenever I think of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, I think of the survival of the church musician. Organists are never the ones in charge, and they know that their own philosophies and desires regarding the music of the church are always subject to review and censure from the ones who are in charge. I have been enjoying quite a bit of freedom to chose, and creatively execute, the music of the service, and so has our choir director. This summer, though, we will be getting a new pastor, and one never knows what will be permissible with a new boss.

Sweelinck's case was fairly extreme. He grew up in 16th century Amsterdam, a city many of us now associate with freedom of thought to the nth degree. In his day, Amsterdam was a Catholic City. Under the guidance of a Catholic priest, young Jan learned the organ, and by the age of 15 was the organist at his home church (I have him beat by a year if you include a four week stint as a substitute; more on that this fall). But a year later, he suffered a change of boss.

I say suffered because it was more than a small change. The entire city was taken over by Protestants. And in this age, they didn't merely set up across the street and compete with the Catholics, they were the ones in charge and dedicated themselves to wiping out every vestige of that "incorrect" religion they were determined to replace.

One thing they didn't do was smash the organ. The city fathers had just paid a lot of money for a new instrument and apparently prevailed upon the Protestants not to "protest" quite so cruelly as they often did when they "reformed" a city. (Believing the organ to be a Catholic thing, they were determined not to allow it as part of their own rite.) Adding to their moderation Sweelinck was even permitted to play the organ. Just not during church anymore.

Strict Calvinists did, and often still do, adhere to the "Regulative Principle" of worship, which basically says that if you can't specifically find it in the New Testament, or make a very close argument from scripture, you can't have it in worship. Since the letters of Paul don't specifically mention organ playing during worship, organ playing has to go.

There was a bit of a snag, which was that the Protestants brought with them an entirely new set of hymns which the congregation didn't know. So Sweelinck was allowed to improvise variations on these new hymns before the service began. Once the service started, however, he was not allowed to play the organ.

There is a tiny bit of me that is jealous of Sweelinck on this score. On the one hand, this must have represented a difficult censure of his person and his faith, and disallowed him from what must have felt his duty to God and his people; on the other, it relieved him of a lot of responsibility and basically gave him a lot of free time.

Sweelinck was apparently kept on as Municipal Organist, allowed to play concerts, and given what appears to have been a good salary, and without having to perform as many functions. This evidently gave him lots of time to compose. In that respect, it reminds me of Bach at his first church in Arnstadt, when he only had to serve about 6 hours a week and had the rest of the time to practice and write music. For a growing genius that was an incredible blessing. Sweelinck was also a growing genius, and needed time to develop and grow, whether the fruits of his labor would be permitted to resound in God's temple or no.

But he doesn't seem to have taken these developments lying down; not musically, anyway. Among his organ compositions, most of which were probably written down as he got older (being an inveterate improviser he didn't write anything down at first) are some pieces based on Catholic hymns (surprise!). That is also true of many of his vocal compositions. Peter Dirksen and Harold Vogel, in their edition of Sweelinck's works (2004) suggest that his publication in 1619 in the "Catholic city of Antwerp" (people sometimes chose places of publication that might be friendlier to their contents) might be "Sweelinck's answer to the Synod of Dordrecht" which basically re-affirmed Calvinism in the face of opposing doctrines (and political suspicion). It is an interesting premise; I have no idea what Sweelinck actually felt about all of these developments and have not uncovered any materials that would tell (do they exist?) But he seems to have gotten along pretty well for himself in the situation in which he was cast; he was even able to charge pretty high prices for lessons and seems to have been well respected by his city. But I can't imagine he was entirely happy with the people who had basically chased his priest and mentor from the city and were hostile to the faith of his formative years. That seems apparent from his output, which is mixed.

I've noticed that phenomenon in the catalogs of a few organists of the time; the tendency to write some pieces based on Lutheran chorales, and others on Latin Hymns. It is curious, and makes me consult the map of Europe during the Reformation and the composer's biographies for answers. I am more curious than many musicians who seem content to play the music without asking why. But whenever a composer whose town (and therefore himself; for geography was religion and personal choice was not a safe option) is of one faith (today we call them denominations) writes pieces of another, one well might wonder why, mightn't one? If you were me, that is.

I suppose I'll just have to keep digging.

p.s. My cat doesn't seem to like Sweelinck's music. He jumped off my lap as I began to play some.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Take Care of yourself

Sometimes the only thing between you and success is a glass of water.

Sure, it helps if you are prepared, mentally collected, experienced, and just generally good at what you do, but in the end, the performance, or the rehearsal, happens right here, right now, and you have to do your best no matter the circumstances and no matter your condition. And we all get sick, and we all get tired.

On Sunday, after three morning services and an afternoon going away party for our former pastor, an all-too-brief attempted nap and a dash for food, I faced a four hour choir rehearsal. That can be a tricky thing even when you are well rested and ready to go, but often my performances and rehearsals are lumped together and there isn't much time to recover from one before it is time for another. And when you are running from one place to another with little time for error it is easy to forget that most basic of elements:


Feeling dehydrated, I took a minute to listen to my body, find a water fountain and fill a tall cup twice with water. Made quite a difference, particularly in the first two hours before dinner with 60 people hanging on for dear life through tricky meter changes and quick tempi.

Musicians these days love to blog; love to give advice; love to tell you how to be as successful as they are. The interwebs are full of advice on how to practice, how to be mentally tough, how to get the next gig; here's one you might not read often enough, but it's the result of experience, and this week is just the latest example. Try it, it works! The amazing take-care-of-your-body method. Keep calm and carry on.

But first, make sure you drank enough water.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Blame the Equipment

If you've ever played tennis you may be familiar with the phenomenon in which a black hole mysteriously opens in the middle of your racquet just as you are about to deliver a killer shot and inexplicably causes you to miss.

I was, very technically, on the tennis team for a year in high school and experienced this an unaccountable number of times. Naturally I was so stunned each time a parallel dimension came crashing through into our reality that I looked at my racquet as if to say, "somehow, this is your fault." My friend, who liked to stretch the definition of the term friend, enjoyed merrily pointing this out every time, suggesting that it wasn't really the racquet's fault at all and that there was in fact something wrong with my game.

I am, therefore, aware of how you might react to my recent round of equipment blaming. It has to do with the organ.

Last fall, I noticed an odd thing. There were times when the articulation on some of the notes was not as crisp as I wanted. I have a stern ear, and it wants what it wants. This means that actually missing a note isn't the only thing that can go wrong with a passage. If one of the notes overstays its welcome by even a tiny bit, that passage can sound sloppy. Now given that we'd just had the action reworked and tightened, and that some of the keys were quite obviously sticking, there was a case to be made that some of the occasional inarticulate passages that mar my recordings from last September were not my fault. Since that time, the action has relaxed, and sticking notes are less of a problem, though they still crop up occasionally. But last week, I made recorded evidence that it isn't just the keyboard that can make mistakes. This one came from the organ itself.

What you are about to listen to are two passages from the same performance. Our organ has a playback system, and what this means is that I can hit a record button on the console and play a piece of music, whereon the system in the pipe room stores as MIDI data each key as it is depressed, released, when stops are added or removed, and so on. Then, when you press the PLAY button, it will replicated your performance exactly on the organ itself.

So when I say it is the same performance, I mean I played the piece one time, and recorded the results twice, each time by hitting the PLAY button and audio recording the results that I had already recorded on the organ console earlier. And when I got to exhibit A I heard a note that didn't exactly fire.

exhibit A         

"That's odd," I though. "I don't remember muffing that note when I played it."

I hadn't. That much became clear when, being a suspicious lad, I hit the play button a second time and re-recorded the same performance from organ to microphone. The second time it sounded fine.

exhibit B

What would cause a variation like that? Remember, the organ is a large and complex instrument. It consists of large metal and wooden pipes, and lots of moving parts. Those parts can be affected by humidity and temperature. Sometimes something sticks, however temporary, and affects the execution.

My theory is that, the first time, the temperature in the sanctuary had something to do with it. Typically, when I record during the winter months, I bump up the temperature five degrees, then turn the thermostat back to its regular position. During the time it takes the sanctuary to fall five degrees, the heat will not come on, which would cause background hissing on the recordings and affect their quality, particularly when it comes to recordings of the piano (on the organ you can hear the blower going anyhow). Sometimes the change in temperature can cause the wood in the building to make rather loud settling noises, which I then have to edit out. But as the temperature settles back to what that space is "used to" there is less tension on the wood. And also less time to record before the heat begins to hiss and hum all over again. In the summer this is less of a concern. I only have to worry about the birds. And the air-conditioning.

And occasionally, the equipment doesn't quite behave itself. In which case, you try it again. Even if it's not your fault. That's life.

Now that's not so paranoid, is it?

Friday, February 13, 2015


The older I get, the more I stress planning ahead, particularly when it comes to church services. The chances are good that by the time the congregation hears the opening voluntary on Sunday, I've been practicing it close to every day for around two weeks. The same will be true of various other elements in the service. The choir usually gets going on the anthem about a month ahead of time; I've chosen most of what I'm going to play as soon as the next sermon series gets disseminated. Only the hymns come the week of the service, and I don't practice those much.

It's odd that I am such a preparer, because I also improvise a lot. I used to improvise entire church services--that offertory you heard this morning? Totally made that up as it was happening. If it's done well, the congregation can't tell. In fact, I remember throwing a change-up at some people in my congregation in Baltimore. When someone asked about the morning prelude one morning and I told them I just made it up, word got around that I sometimes improvised. The next week somebody noticed that there was no music on the rack and said, "You must have made up that postlude." "Nope" said I. "That was a piece I was playing from memory!" I like messing with people.

These days I still incorporate improvisation into a service (hard to avoid). But I emphasize the planned elements more. Still, it is impossible to get through a service without a fair amount of real-time adjustment.  This is not always in the form of create music on the spot, either. It can simply mean listening and watching. Last Sunday, for instance, the pastor wanted to sign through a single-verse hymn twice. He put up two fingers as we were singing. Now he had warned me at the early service just before we sang the hymn, but I didn't think the choir director knew about it. She had planned to conduct the hymn (which she rarely does) nice and slow and with some rubato. So I played the hymn a bit faster and in time for the first round, looking at the pastor and choir loft every so often the whole time. Then I noticed the pastor give the "2" sign again while the choir director was looking. Good, she saw it, I thought. So we went around again. This time, she directed. I know because on the second beat it was clear that the choir was behind me. I suddenly looked up and realized what a dummy I was for not having my eyes on the choir loft (20 feet to the right, by the way) when we started the second verse. Instead, my eyes were on the piano, making sure I didn't miss some octaves in the left hand. The ensemble problem only lasted a second, though; we were synced up by the next measure (I stretched that third beat a lot). I had had some warning about both the extra verse and the directing, but still had to be on the lookout for how these elements would come together. Otherwise they wouldn't!

An incident like that is only a few moments out of a typical Sunday morning. Two weeks ago we had what is possibly our most impromptu service. We've been in the midst of a pastor change at Faith, which, given that it involves medical leave, came up suddenly. So on Sunday morning extra elements (like an announcement to the congregation, followed by question and answers) were added, some were discarded (for time reasons), and some were moved around (such as when the liturgist accidentally skipped the opening voluntary). About a third of the way into the service, the pastor said to the congregation that they'd probably noticed that what was actually happening bore little resemblance to what was in their bulletins and that they could discard their bulletins!

Far from find that sort of thing annoying, I actually enjoy the challenge of a slapdash morning like that. I enjoy them because I know they can be successful but that I had better concentrate because the service(s) will be difficult, and lack of focus and quick and accurate decision making will make a mess of things. Therefore there is a bit of survivalist mode in view. This is going to take everything: no sleepwalking today.

And yet I plan. And most mornings go pretty much according to plan. Never entirely, I think, but mainly. And yet, when the pastor (or someone else) calls an audible, changing the play at the last minute, it can be most interesting. Now for some folks that's a dirty word: interesting. It is a synonym for less-than-good. But that's not what I mean. I actually mean that it piques my interest.

Our church is going through a lot of change these days. I am reminded of the 'Chinese curse': "May you live in interesting times." Whenever yet another development rocks our comfortable world, I tell my colleagues, "Well, it least things aren't boring around here." It's practically become my motto. It does feel sometimes as if there can be too much of a good thing: even for the man who likes change more than most there can be some overload. So when all of this is over, I may order up a couple of weeks of 'boring' just so I can get a bit of rest!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Sinister Hand

Recently I was asked a question about the left hand. An organist wanted to know if there was anything he could do about a left hand that just didn't seem to be able to keep up with his right.

There is nothing really new about this problem--most of us are right-handed (90%, I think). Most composers, therefore, have been right-handed. And most of the time the most difficult parts are written for the right hand.

At least, that's true of a lot of piano music.

The trouble is, that isn't always true of organ music, for the reason that it is frequently contrapuntal, in which every voice, and therefore both hand, are taking equal roles. That is also, of course, true if you are playing, let's say, Bach, on the piano. It is only after Bach, and maybe well into the 19th century, when you get music in which the right hand rollicks along and the left hand merely provides a little plunk plunk here and there.

And anyway, it is not good to try to make a career out of having a right hand that can play like the wind and a left hand that lumbers along like an octopus missing three arms (does that make it a pentapus?). So what to do about it?

Here's one extreme. Brahms reversed Schubert's Impromptu Op. 90 n. 2 in Eb so that the rapid passages were in the left hand, and the accompanying chords in the right. He did the same thing, if I remember right (or left), for Weber's Perpetuum Mobile and a Chopin Etude. Obviously the young Brahms thought that equality between the hands was important, and he couldn't find an existing piece that emphasized the left hand.

There are, however, some passages in the Chopin Etudes, and also the Moszkowski Etudes, that give the left hand all the hard work. They are rare; most of the time the right hand gets to do all the derring do, but occasionally even Czerny or Hanon will focus on the left hand as a tour de force. But Brahms's example is useful. If there aren't enough such passages, create your own. Play right hand parts with your left hand. Make it work, especially while the right hand takes it easy.

In fact, you could give your right hand the day off. Sometimes it is good to work the left hand by itself. Often we find it impossible to play the left hand independently; if trying to do so leads to that unpleasant discovery it is because your left hand is always dependent on the right for orientation, both in physical space and to find the rhythm. Making it play by itself often helps your mind concentrate on what you may have not thought was a very important part. Make it important--make it the focus of what you are doing. Coordinating it with the right hand is much easier when the two are on a more equal footing (handing?) and this won't happen unless you can imagine your left hand as an independent force. I'll bet you can play your right hand by itself. But your left?

Much of the literature I've suggested is for the piano. Maybe this is the product of my pianist training--and lack of it on the organ. But I find piano skills helpful in playing the organ. It seems to help with the precision of the fingers to have an instrument that fights back a little; and a modern organ usually doesn't.  My pianistic background is probably why my organ playing is more rhythmic, articulate, and less sloppy that many organists I know.

There is one more pianistic angle I've thought of. When you are playing scales with both hands, learn to lead with your left hand. That is, concentrate on it, make it the one running the show, focus on it, and don't let the right hand go any faster than the left hand will go.

In time, the left hand will become more agile and able to hold its own with the right, though if that is your non-dominant hand, it will probably never be entirely equal. Sometimes you just need to play a passage very slowly and concentrate on the interplay between the hands, speeding it up a little each day, but never without being able to think of each note as you play it. Don't let your hands, either of them, run ahead of your mind. That's really your third hand, and it is the most important one; the physical inequity between the hands can largely be overcome through focus, and concentration.

The bias toward the right hand is built right into our language. In Latin the right hand is the mano dextra (the dexterous hand) and the left is the mano sinestra, which is where we get the word sinister, as in there must be something very wrong with left-handed people! Pianist Leon Fleischer used to pun on this etymological connection: before he commenced a concert of music entirely for the left hand alone (having sustained an injury to his right several decades ago), he would say to the audience: "And now for an evening of sinister music...."

Monday, February 9, 2015

Excuses and Disclaimers

Perhaps you've heard someone tell you that you should never make excuses for your performance. Right?


Here is what I think of as both the up side and the down side of the recordings that generally inhabit pianonoise.

First, I make most of the recordings myself. I have what is some relatively low-end equipment. I use a digital recorder I bought for 300 dollars about 12 years ago and which still somehow runs despite being in pieces! I have a pair of 300-400 dollar microphones and two stands and cables to connect everything.

The nice thing about all this is that I can make a recording pretty much any time I want to. I am on a fairly tight schedule with all the choir and band rehearsals that festoon my week, as well as church services, meetings, gigs and concerts, but I am usually on the clock in the evenings which leaves the morning free to make a recording or two. I am able to do this in the sanctuary of the church where I am organist and pianist, and thus have the use of a very nice organ and 7 foot Steinway piano. Most of the time the sanctuary is empty. When it's in use, there is a good chance I'm in use along with it, since I play for all of the groups that rehearse there regularly. This gives me some flexibility and flexibility is good.

What drives my choice of music is often what I am going to play on Sunday morning. This is certainly true of the organ part of the catalog but also frequently the piano as well, since I play that instrument on Sunday mornings which some regularity, including for opening voluntaries and offertories (and postludes). In these cases, I choose what will work for a particular service based on a variety of factors, and what winds up being online is simply what the sum total of all those decisions over time has been. But much of the piano side (and some of the organ music) winds up being extra-curricular, meaning I just felt like recording those pieces. In that case I have to fit any practice time (often there isn't any, or very little) and the time to record in and among the pieces I'm playing for church or for a concert or that have some deadline that other people will notice.

In either case, I'm often going through a lot of music in a short period of time, which means that on average the music you hear has only had about three days practice before it hit the microphone. That's not likely to produce the best possible interpretation, nor even the best technical grasp, and yet I've gotten pretty quick about learning many a piece, and, I have a couple of helps.

The first is that I can do several takes, so if I'm still actually learning the piece 'on microphone' --which happens, sometimes, I can get it right by the end. Usually I do about 3 or 4, no more. And I have the ability to edit the recordings, which I do to some extent. Really, though, if a fairly short piece of music (5 min. or less) needs more than a handful of edits it isn't worth it. I don't know the piece well enough and I'll try it again later. Some of the piece you are hearing are exactly as I played them with no edits at all, and others have a few. Many of them contain edits that shortened the original pauses during sections when I was flipping music around on the organ, which is why you almost never hear any page turning noises during a recording. It isn't because I've memorized everything.  I memorize pretty fast, but if it takes me 3 days to memorize a piece I'll record it in two! (that's another discussion). Another thing I can get rid of through editing are building noises, such as when the roof creaks or when a truck drives by loudly.

Generally I have only one day to record, and if I'm not in the best playing shape that day, too bad! Which brings me to one thing I'm proud of. Sure, I don't always get the sound right, or play exactly the way I'd like. But there's this:

You aren't listening to my highlight reel, the way a concert artist sometimes puts a few pieces on their site representing them at their very best. You also aren't getting  pieces I've known for years practiced for months, recorded by professionals using thousands of dollars of equipment and edited thousands of times. But you are getting my playing, every week. Each week I post something new on short notice. It's the best I can do consistently, the way I sound all the time, busy schedule and all.

And you know, from that angle It isn't too bad!

Friday, February 6, 2015

Sunday morning (part four)

10:05. They call me the thinnest person on the staff. Considering I've just made my seventh jog of the morning across the gathering area (our lobby) from one Worship Space to the other, I do get my exercise. At the other end this time waits the choir. We rehearse the minute I sit at the piano. Considering how I am always playing the angles, I am relieved to think, when I glance at my phone and see how the Fusion service is running long, that the choir has an unaccompanied number for the anthem this morning.

But that's usually not the case, so I high-tail it back to the North Sanctuary the second we're finished. The choir usually rehearses for about 10 minutes, long enough to go over this week's anthem, any prayer responses or tricky hymns, and then I have a few minutes to relax before the 10:30 service begins. We have a choral director, and if the piano is in its usual position across the chancel, I have to follow her conducting from 30 feet away. Often, we move the piano so it is nestled up to the choir for support. The architect must have thought it looked better to have such a symmetrical look to the chancel, but it doesn't help the musicians any. Sometimes the eyes and the ears have different needs.

Oh, did I mention my doughnut? I used to wolf it down while I was waiting for the 10:30 service to start; otherwise I would get very hungry during the sermon (having breakfasted over four hours previously); surely the loudness of my stomach interfered with the listening of the other congregants; I started snagging a doughnut between the second and third services; it was hard to get it eaten before choir practice without getting the keyboard sticky; I started to eat it after choir rehearsal and noticed the sugar rush interfered with my concentration; consequently I pushed it back to during the 9 o'clock sermon. There you have the evolution of a simple matter like eating a doughnut. And yes, they were having a sale on semi-colons. How ever did you know?

A number of other things about my activities on Sunday morning have evolved, always in the direction of greater efficiency, as I try to give the best attention to every group and every detail, of which there are many.

Once the 10:30 service starts, there is only one place to be. It is much like the one at 8, except that there is a choir, and therefore an additional musical selection or two. It is another opportunity to lead the congregation in singing, accompany the choir, improvise quietly, play demanding solo music, and not miss a cue. Also to think fast: you might have to change microphone batteries, try to fix the sound system, or help with some equipment setup on the fly. You never know.

The most difficult issue with this service is my energy level. By the start of the service I've been on the job for nearly three and a half hours with no real break, and much of that has been 'performing'--that is, lots of people are depending on you to keep a solid rhythm, play the right notes, help them find theirs, and give the best you've got in terms of musicality and sheer joy. Often, I find that the 10:30 sermon is about when I start to plummet. It's the first time I've sat and done nothing for an extended period, and my first chance to find out how tired I've gotten--lately I've taken to heading back over to the Worship and Life Center to cover the piano there, since I had to run off when that service ended. It's got that peaceful, beatifically exhausted feeling that sanctuaries seem to have when they are done being the sites of Divine worship. This may help me to keep up my adrenaline, which is often at risk during this time. However, some mornings I've had trouble getting through the first service and am full of energy at the last one. Occasionally it is the middle one that suffers--or a part of it. It seems to depend on my general state of health and sleep deprivation that day. It is, however, very difficult, I've found, to go through the entire morning without experiencing a flagging of the energy at some point. Then concentration cam fall victim and then--watch out!

It is here that technique and habit come to the rescue. If you can play well enough when you are not bringing your A game that there is no discernible difference between your best and your not-best, you are a professional, and you can get through a Sunday morning like mine pretty well no matter what. There are a number of skills I've consciously and painstakingly cultivated over the years which come together to get me through the five hours I spend at church, and which make each Sunday a real challenge, but also a whole lot of fun. There is always the chance that things will not go well if I don't concentrate and give it my best. And it is inevitable that there will be something I wish I could take back. But there is no time to wallow in mistakes. You have to go on, otherwise you will make more. And you have to ignore your exhaustion and push ahead. Particularly if you've just programmed a really tricky offertory for the last service after a long sermon and you have just realized that you are not feeling up to it at the moment: first rule of being a musician: it doesn't matter how it went in practice, you have to give it your best when it is time to do it, which, really, is every single time, practice or otherwise. That habit of always doing your best makes it easier to play well no matter the circumstances.

If those circumstances permit, however, I usually find myself horizontal for a couple of hours in the afternoon, sleeping soundly, saving my energy for a long choir practice to come Sunday night.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Who Really Wrote the 8 Little Preludes and Fugues? (part six)

Today we get to watch a musicologist in action; that is, we shall read his comments and ourselves comment upon them. This is taken from page 558 of Peter Williams' "The Organ Music of J. S. Bach." Commenting upon the prelude and fugue in G minor, he writes of the prelude:

"Only on paper could evidence be found for regarding this movement as an "Italian Courante' (Dietrich, 1931); neither the form (A B A B) nor the figuration (one harmony per bar, decorated) is typical of any courante. Clearly the conventional cadence formulae have been well learnt (bb 16, 22, 36) and the last might easily have been a phrygian half-close had it been conventional for prelude to en in this way. As elsewhere in the Eight, simple one-bar sequences above a basso continuo are so prominent as almost to suggest that their composer was consciously creating a series of samples."


The first comment, about the "Italian Courante" is directed at a previous scholar (one Dietrich, whose book dates from 1931, which should enable us to find it if we like and read his argument for ourselves). I have no idea what an Italian courante actually is. I have played a number of courantes, but I believe they are french, and though there are two distinct types (corrente and courante, one more active and the other more stately) I do not know about the Italian version, so I can't comment. His observation about the "one harmony per bar, decorated" is what is useful to our purpose.

Williams is pointing to the student-like nature of this piece. It is basically a series of root position chords (he makes that point elsewhere) filled in. What this means is that any reasonably competent music student, given a pattern of harmonies (and these really only follow the circle of fifths), could fill in the harmonies with arpeggiation--thus, it takes no genius to write something like this. The cadences, he notes, are well learned formulas. In fact, the paint-by-number compositional approach is so prevalent here (not badly done, in fact quite competent, just not very imaginative) that he thinks that the composer was creating "a series of samples." Samples?

This, oddly, is probably the one thing that could point us to Bach's authorship. The idea here being that the composer was simply trying to show simple technique in composition, i.e. providing a recipe to show students how to make a workmanlike prelude. I was recently reading a book by another musicologist who suggested the the famous C major prelude from the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier, itself consisting entirely of a long chain of arrpegiated harmonies, was also intended as a student exercise.

But there is a major difference in quality between the two. Bach's C major prelude contains a number of very interesting voice leadings within those inner voices. Treating the entire measure of notes as one block chord (in fact, in the manuscript that's how they were written after the first five bars) one finds that there is a quite melodic nature of each of the individual voices within the chords, real counterpoint-- now one part moving up a note, now another down, to create a web of really ingenious harmonies. Within that web are a number of dissonances, for, as the notes move, they jostle against one another and create temporary disturbances. This is much more characteristic of a great musical mind; someone composing "by the book" will avoid things that "don't sound good" because they will not be thinking in large units of propulsion, but only of the actual musical moment before them.

In fact, I read once of someone using a computer to track the number of dissonances in known works of Bach and they found that there were a great many more than in any of his lesser known contemporaries. I believe the idea was to help in determining whether Bach actually wrote some of the pieces whose authorship is being debated.

Monday, February 2, 2015

FAQ about the web archive

On the off chance that you are curious about the currently over 400 files available for listening at, I thought I'd take you on a quick tour. The collection consists of music for piano and for organ.

What the oldest piece of music on the site?
I've got plans to record selections from the '"Robertsbridge Codex" a manuscript of the earliest surviving keyboard music, which dates to around 1360. The piano was invented around 1700, so there is quite a bit of organ music that predates anything on that side. That will happen sometime this spring when time permits. As of February 2015, the oldest music on the site is probably either the group of pieces by Antonio Cabezon (1510-66) or the single piece by John Redford (died 1547; that's all we know). There is also piece of 21st century piano music ("O ignee Spiritus" by Marteau) based on a hymn chant written by Hildegard of Bingen which is itself from the 10th century.

What's the newest piece of music on the site?
"Cocheareu's Nightmare" is an improvisation from January 2015. Just like the oldest music, I have plans to keep expanding the boundaries here also. The newest thing I play at my church every week is when I improvise, and/or when I've just written something for the occasion. I'll be posting new compositions and improvisations regularly.

Seven centuries of music! That's a lot of temporal variety!

What different styles can I find there?
A lot of it gets called classical, a term I don't like. For starters, that term includes music written all over Europe and parts of Asia and the United States (at the very least) and covers over four centuries (at least). It also includes conflicting styles. More specifally, classicism and romanticism in music are really opposites. But both classical music (dominant in the 18th century) and Romantic music (dominant in the 19th) are given the umbrella term Classical. Then there's Baroque music (17th and 18th centuries) and all the various types of music from the 20th century--impressionism, minimalism, serialism, aleatoric music, neo-baroque, neo-classical, and neo-romantic music, and a lot of combinations of these. What all these different musics have in common is that on this site they are mostly played on solo piano or organ, and they tend not to be as repetitive and predictable as popular musical styles. And they have no words.

In addition , there is some ragtime, various kinds of jazz and blues, a bit of gospel, a smidge of minimalism and a touch of new age. And there will be more of those no doubt as I keep adding things. When you have a passion to understand, you tend not to ignore even styles you don't care for as much, so there is a good bit of eclecticism in the catalog as a result. I don't post things by category, however. You get to find those interesting byways the same way I do; by continuous exploration!

That's pretty diverse, huh?
Well, it is and it isn't. Most of the catalog is music in the public domain because I can't get copyright clearance for a lot of things, though some composers who themselves have copyright have generously agreed to let me post their music. So there are some living composers, just not enough. Virtually all of them are men; I'm trying to work on that, too (I think only 2 are women right now.) So, most of the music is from the early 20th century or before. And most of it is from Europe or America. But I've posted a few pieces from China and South America, and would like to continue to post pieces from different cultures. If you know of some interesting piano music from more "Eastern" cultures, particularly if it is public domain, or under a Creative Commons License, or you wrote it and can give me copyright permission, let me know!

There isn't as much of the "standard classical repertoire" as I'd like, but there are some nice rarities, and I'll keep posting those as well. I'd like as many important musical voices to be represented as possible. Some of the pieces are rather profound; others are lighter and more "listener friendly." I'm going to try to add more of these in the coming months as well.

How will I be able to find the music that I like?
That's the catch--in the index, you won't, unless you already know the music or the composer. You'll just have to explore (horrors!). However, in many ways the index page is a portal to the rest of the site. There are, for instance, articles about composers, and various music topics on the site, and there I've gathered relevant pieces of music. In that case you'll have some ideas about what kinds of pieces are there before you listen. The index is really a way for me to keep track of every single piece no matter where it is 'located' throughout the 100 page website or referenced in hundreds of blog articles. It is a useful way to listen to everything, but you can also explore the site and listen to those pieces in a different context. Eventually, there will be a lot more cross-indexing than there is now. But, alas, many of my other ideas are still in embryo.

Such as....?
As I write blogs about the various pieces I've recorded, I'm going to start inserting little links next to those pieces in the index so you can read more about those pieces if you are curious about them. They may contain factual information, or, more likely, my thoughts and experiences when playing them, or what to listen for to make the piece come alive for you. I'm also working on a "Meditation Garden" which will serve as a kind of musical therapy for those wishing music that serves their current emotional needs. That's an idea that's still just in my head. But it'll make its way to the internet some time next year.

How many composers are currently represented in the archive?
72 at the moment.

How long would it take to listen to everything there?
By the end of the year (July) it should be up over 24 hours. Right now it is just under 22.