Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Time to put up the orange barrels

It's construction season all over this great land, and I thought I'd get in on it. But don't worry; this will be pretty painless.

It's time for some summer R and R and also to make some improvements to my web empire. Mostly by indexing, gathering, and allowing for easier cutting and pasting of material so that my homepage always has something to read even when I'm too busy or exhausted to write something new. At this point I've got close to 500 articles (over 300 of them blogs) and given the subject matter I don't think most of them are any more or less relevant now than when I wrote them. You probably haven't read many of them yet so if you check out my homepage once a week (right now I'm updating on Tuesdays) I'll be posting past articles, blogs and recordings for your perusal while I continue to make numerous small improvements (including proofreading) in the content of the 100 pages of pianonoise the site as well as this blog.

Usually the orange barrels go up weeks before any real work begins but I've already gotten started behind the scenes. You aren't likely to notice anything for a while, but as everyone in the service industry likes to say, we are doing this to better serve you.

In the meantime, as is my summertime wont, I won't be blogging for a few months. But please stay on the line. Your readership is very important to us.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Camp was fun!!!!

Last week I went to summer music camp at the University of Illinois. It was a blast. I enjoyed working with the kids and the conductor, hanging out at the library and the practice rooms between session (right, I'm still a nerd), and various other cool things.

For instance, did you know the cafeteria has a killer salad bar?

You know I'm in my forties, right? I had a conversation with a student in line who I recognized as belonging to the children's chorus I play for during the year. I mentioned that when I went to another summer camp as a high school student I ate a lot of pizza, and now my favorite thing was the salad bar. He said he preferred the pizza. No kidding. I told him to wait a couple of decades.

I didn't just eat salad, though. I also got addicted to a drink with kiwi strawberry in it--had some every day. And the ice cream....

well, that's a sore subject. The ice cream ran out just before I got there two days in a row. The first day, after I asked, they added more, which exploded out of the spigot. The second more ice cream. Sad.

It wasn't all about the food, though. We made lots of music. Our director, Dr. Andrew McGill, chair of the voice department at the university, also has quite a bio as preparer of choruses for some major organizations around the country and has conducted the Montreal Symphony. But he also really gets the high school demographic. He was able to make a 15th century madrigal come alive for the students with his imitation of dancing sheep. He could be silly, and demanding, at will. And he has tons of energy.

Besides the main concert we were preparing for Saturday, some of the students auditioned for an informal campers-only concert in which soloists and ensembles sang. It was interesting sight-reading for some of them. Their photocopies were often missing the bottom staves of music, and in one case the key signature, meter signature, clefs, and the first two beats of each line weren't there at all! A chance to offer a primer on how to deal with an accompanist! (I'm a good guesser, but still...)

In between the rehearsals I was dealing with issues related to my car and various other domestic things, which is not at all how I remember camp as a teenager. I also noticed how much time was spent lining up at the dorm and being herded in enormous groups to the various classes. I don't really miss that part of my life.

On Saturday we gave the concert we'd been preparing for for seven days. Two hours in the morning and two in the afternoon were spent polishing seven pieces of music, and in one rush of a week all that music was sung in the Great Hall at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. (It was fun having all that great reverb on the ends of chords). My work was mostly done since 5 of the 7 pieces were unaccompanied. As usual, I got a great seat right in front of the chorus to listen.

When it was over, there were floods of emotion from the campers: it is really a great week for them. One of the campers drew a mural on the whiteboard in the room involving the names of all the pieces on the concert. It evolved as the week went along, and eventually included all of the teachers as well. I have my own little corner, playing the piano on a cloud.

Friday, June 19, 2015

A year of goodbyes

This weekend we are saying a fond farewell to our pastor. It's been a rough semester at Faith UMC, actually. In November, our other pastor applied for medical leave because of his heart, and at the end of January was finally granted it. This prompted renewed fears that our other pastor would also be re-assigned.

For those of you not familiar with this system, in the United Methodist church, the pastor is appointed to a local church by the bishop, usually starting July 1. Each year pastors are either kept in their current churches or moved at the will of the bishop. Generally, the wishes of both parties are taken into account. If the pastor wants to stay and the church wants to have him or her back, the bishop generally decides not to mess with a good thing. Our current bishop, however, has gotten quite a few folks angry with him by ignoring the wishes of the churches and their pastors. In our case, we both wanted him to continue--the bishop moved him anyhow.

Since November, when the pastor told the staff in confidence that he was applying for leave, through the 1st of February, when he left, through the period when all pastors in our denomination get nervous waiting for their assignments, through the time when we heard we were losing our other pastor, until now, when he is leaving, and still for a few more weeks as we wait for our new pastor and she makes the transition with us--that's a long time for a church to be in transition. I used to kind of like some change as an antidote to same old boredom, but this is a little excessive.

Meanwhile, there have been plenty of other changes. Besides the spate of television personalities quitting their old jobs--hey, don't short-change that one. Anybody who has been on the air for over three decades and then leaves creates a hole, even if you didn't watch their show much in recent years. Besides, I had a friend who said he would "cry like a baby" when Letterman aired his last show. I wasn't around to see if he actually did.

Colbert left his own show after 9 years to replace him. Then Stewart announced he is leaving. Have I left anybody out?

I don't know any of those folks personally. I can't say I know my car personally, either, but it is going to great traffic jam in the sky in the next week. It's a '97 and the brakes failed. I was going to pay for the repair, which was already expensive, but then they found more problems and the cost seemed unworthit for a car that was likely to keep developing expensive problems as it continued to age. So I decided to cut bait now and donate the vehicle to my public radio station.

I have a very personable cat that has lived with us for 16 years. He has bone cancer. We are going to have to put him down in the next week or two. It's not easy to think about this. Another farewell.

I could have lost my father a couple of months ago, too. Fortunately, when he went in for a routine Angiogram doctors found two severe blockages and put in stents instead of the open heart surgery they were contemplating. That would have been the biggest adjustment of all, and I'm glad I don't have to make it yet. Dad still has many cups of coffee in his future, we hope--just not so many at a time!

Three of these changes all occur this week. The old is passing away. That's always true; it just doesn't happen evenly. And the new comes to take its place. Let us accept these changes with grace.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

You have to really want it

We've all seen the movies where the group of misfits, or the underdogs, or some hometown hero who comes out of nowhere, manages to win the important contest just because they really want it very badly. It's a popular mythology, and it's not just in movies. Sports announcers like to play up this aspect, too.  The team that wins always wants it worse than the other team; that's the difference.

I've never been a huge fan of this idea, and I've noticed I have some company. In general, people who are successful in their fields tend to stress craft, and the hard work needed to get where they are. People who are not as successful tend to think in terms of raw talent and desire.

If you've been to those movies you notice that it is the desire that always puts the hero over the top. There is usually a bit of training involved, too, but that's the boring, repetitive part that in real life would go on for a long time and not seem very glamorous. It's the part where the real price is being paid for the eventual outcome. In the theater that isn't going to play well to a bunch of people sitting on their duffs waiting to share viscerally in someone else's success, so it usually goes by in a two-minute video montage with some inspirational music.

This is a cheap way to enjoy success, watching someone else do it and enjoying the emotional payoff of wanting to see them do it. It is pretty addictive, and popular, after all, the whole concept of being a sports fan is based on it. Let those guys do the hard work and we'll enjoy the success, after we've put in our time sitting on our couch with a bag of chips and yelling at the officials for two hours.

Given how important desire is in this scenario, you might imagine I've always been suspicious of it in my own field, and am forever stressing training and craft and consistent hard work to students. But lately I've come to think I've been a little hard on just plain wanting it. It's pretty important, too.

It doesn't exist in a vacuum, though, and that's where I haven't changed my mind a bit. If all you do is want something but don't put in the practice you won't get anywhere. In the moment, at the end of a long period of learning to do what you do very well, that sheer desire may make the difference, but the training has to be there. But maybe desire isn't just something you put in at the end. It may be what causes you to go out there day after day and practice. And practice hard. In which case, it is not just important, it is essential. Like most things, there are two versions of desire--one real, one counterfeit. The one where you'd sort of like to do something but not badly enough to discipline your mind and body to the task--to pay the price--that's not the real thing.

But lately I've been thinking about the role of desire in performance--the kind that shows itself in the heat of the moment, after all the hours of work.

Consider that amazing catch by that Seahawks wide receiver in the Superbowl last year. That ball bounced off of about 5 parts of his body as he lay on the ground and he still managed to haul that ball in. What a catch! How do you suppose he did that?

I'm thinking of all the hours of practice. Constantly running down the field, constantly learning to time the run, reach up at just the right time, cradle the ball just the right way, pull it in to your body, over and over, the same way. Consistent, efficient, flawless. And every kind of route you can run, catching it on your toes to stay in bounds--every kind of scenario, over and over to make it automatic. But once in a while the quarterback throws it wild--over the head, off to the side, an impossible catch. Hey, that's not the way it's supposed to go!

But he catches it anyway, somehow. Sure, we are working for smooth technique, and for making everything as easy and as well timed as we can. But the main mission here is to catch the ball. If I wind up looking like an idiot, I don't care, as long as I catch the ball. I can yell at the quarterback afterward, but in that moment, the point is to CATCH THE BALL no matter what. If I have to fling my body into outer space, do a somersault, catch it between my feet and reach down to grab it, grab it as it bounces off somebody's helmet, doesn't matter. The concentration on that receiver's face was evident. Until that ball hits the ground it's a live one. It can bounce in eight different directions, but as long as I keep focusing on it until I can grab it I can make a catch and that makes all the difference because I want it. Badly.

What we're talking about now is the "wrong kind" of practice. This is the kind of practice that is directly against the point of practice itself. It is the kind that you are supposed to avoid. Instead of smoothness, consistency, constant drilling of every detail so it goes easily, this is completely off-book, simply trying to make a passage go down without making the procedure our top concern. It's also the kind of practice that you can't get with any consistency because each situation if different, and, since it implies a loss of technical control, it's what you are trying to avoid in the first place. But can you make it work?

Every teacher I've heard or seen talks about slow tempi, much repetition, writing in all your fingerings and phrasing, not leaving anything to chance. It sounds slow and methodical, and I can't blame impatient students for finding this difficult. It's important. But this busy professional can't do all that. With several deadlines a week, and having to continually sight-read at rehearsals and sometimes concerts--you can't write in all your fingering when you are sight-reading!

What gets me through? First, all of that consistent training enables me to make up solid fingerings on the spot. Most of the time, the patterns, sensed immediately, cause my fingers to seemingly think for themselves, and execute the same fingerings I would upon reflection. But not always. Sometimes I wind up playing some pretty poor fingerings. In this case, it is years of finding ways to keep playing without breaking the musical phrase, years of solving difficult problems where no good fingerings were available, and years of being in situations when you had no time to adequately prepare but had to make good music anyway that allow me to make virtually any lousy fingering work so that nobody notices. My teacher in college once bragged that he could make any fingering work, and demonstrated a very legato phrase using the same finger on several consecutive notes. I can now do that myself, sometimes at high speed. It wouldn't be my first choice, but it gets me through.

And what about all those situations where you are accompanying amateurs and at the concert the tenors can't find their notes and suddenly out pops their part in the midst of the accompaniment? The next time it may be the altos. At rehearsal I never play strictly the accompaniment. And I never know which vocal parts I'll be playing in combination (that's up to the director), nor will I know, in the heat of the moment, who is going to need help. That comes down to listening hard, and being in the moment. I can't practice exactly what I'm going to play in that situation, any more than that wide receiver can practice catching the ball when the defender gets his finger tips on it and changes its trajectory slightly, or the ball bounces off of somebody else and takes a bizarre carom. What he CAN practice is the act of concentrating on catching the ball in similar circumstances. He can practice the desire to make it work under the direst circumstances. You CAN practice wanting it. Again and again and again.

This is why, in rehearsal, if I can't get a page turned, or the music falls off the stand, I keep going, determined, through some combination of memory, playing everything with one hand, and speedy recovery, not to have to stop, and in a decade of playing rehearsals for choirs, I don't think I even need one hand to count the times we've hand to stop because of the accompanist. It's about efficiency in rehearsal of course, but I'm also thinking: what if this were a concert? I have to find a way to make this work. That has paid off in some nearly disastrous situations in concert. I say nearly because I somehow managed to make it happen. I was determined to make it happen. Nothing between me and the ball I was absolutely going to catch no matter what. In that moment, training may come to your aid, but the script goes out the window. It's all about the desire. And the odd thing about that is, you CAN practice that. You have to!

Monday, June 15, 2015

Going to camp

I'm off to summer music camp this week!

I haven't been there in ages. I was in high school the last time, some fairly large number of years ago; this time I'm going to be part of the staff. I'll be accompanying the senior choir, which rehearses every day, Sunday through Saturday, and gives a concert that afternoon. It's a short camp.

When I was in high school I was part of the choir. One year we sang selections from Carmina Burana, which is a pleasantly "dirty" piece of music if you are a teenager, and full of vigor and visceral excitement. It was accompanied by two pianists, who, I presume, were students at the university. For some reason, I remember the director thanking them during a rehearsal and having us clap for them. Directors tend to appreciate their accompanists.

I had a student a few years back who absolutely loved going to camp each year. I remember it as a very enjoyable two weeks each summer for me, too, and did wonder if I was ever going to have such a great experience later in life.

well, I've moved on and while camp was awesome it wasn't the last good thing in life. But I still remember how great it was, how I was exposed to a lot of music and many ideas I knew nothing about, how I began to move out of the provincial space I had grown up in, and into the wider world, how my piano teacher for the week recommended finding someone other than my elementary school music teacher to study with, which set up (i.e., made possible) my entire collegiate education to follow, how I reveled in the freedom of being able to wander about the campus, going to the music library and listening to music that I didn't have on records while also reading the score, or take a walk through a quiet neighborhood, or participate in a pick-up soccer game just because I happened to be wandering by. There was also a pizza joint conveniently close by and plenty of ice cream.

I recall playing the "prelude to Rhosymedre" by ear on the chapel organ when nobody was around--in the wrong key, because I was replicating the band arrangement instead of Vaughan Williams's organ prelude original, of which I was unaware. I also remember seeing the score to Beethoven's Appasionata Sonata which I had learned in its entirety by ear from a CD and thinking it looked rather difficult on the page. But then, my sightreading skills at that point were awful, in part because I could play by ear so well.

In my last year I won the concerto competition and got to play with the camp orchestra on a brand new 9 foot Steinway which nearly broke off my fingers. I didn't play grand pianos that much yet anyway, and the action on this one hadn't even begun to be broken in. One of the camp councilors, a friend, told me that I made the piano jump toward the end. I got to sneak in and practice on it each evening. Or maybe I was allowed. I don't know. I've made a career out of sneaking practice on pianos in concert halls when I was walking past and they looked lonely.

I remember the joy I felt when I discovered the girl I kindof liked also happened to play the piano in the room at the very end of the hall around the corner farthest from civilization. She lived far away but we met at camp. There were a few letters afterward, but I don't know if she really liked me that much. Also, I suspect neither of us had very developed social skills, or a car.

Camp was also a lonely experience, but I was a loner, and have never really had that much in common with anybody else, which is a more dramatic realization when you are a teenager, and less interesting later. But I had space to think, and to write music, and to be influenced by more music than I got the rest of the year. And the social activities were fun, too. One year I entertained several campers and a few councilors by playing that insipid little tune that came with the Casio keyboards in the style of different composers.

It was always a little tough to go home. At the meeting yesterday for the staff the director said that this camp may change lives. I'll bet it has an major impact on many of them. It was be a blessing to be a part of that, no matter how small.

Friday, June 12, 2015

I'd like to be stubborn like that

This blog apparently got lost in the pipeline. It was meant for two weeks ago, but I'll give it to you now.

This year, for Pentecost, I treated the folks at the early service to some 17th century Spanish music, courtesy of one Antonio de Cabezon. This Sunday [May 31] the folks at the 10:30 service will get to hear him, too, by way of a piece he actually did write.

The thing that fascinates me about the piece I have for you, however, is that it is actually a transcription (and apparently not a very exact transcription) that Cabezon made of the music of another composer, a fellow by the name of Josquin des Prez (1450-1521).

You really have to be a specialist in early music to find that last part exciting, I suppose, but I am going to totally geek out here and confess that I found it very, very exciting. I never thought I would actually get to play the music of Josquin for you pianonoisians for the simple reason that the man never wrote anything for the keyboard. In fact the only thing that actually survives in his own hand is some graffiti he left in the choir stall at. St. Mark's where he sang the choir as a boy. If there is anybody from the Central Illinois Children's Choir, or The Chorale, or our church choir reading this, don't get any ideas.

Anyhow, it turns out Mr. des Prez's music was studied by another early composer of eminence, Mr. Cabezon (1510-66). Now, Martin Luther admired Josquin so much that he called him the "master of the notes." Apparently Cabezon encountered his music on a trip to Italy and made a copy of it to study. How he made the copy is a good question; we know that Cabezon was, for most of his life, blind. We also know that he spent most of his life working as organist for the king and queen of Spain. That's about all we know, and the details of his daily life are lost, as, probably, is a lot of his music.

Some of it was preserved and published by his son; and while most of it is original, there is a piece of a mass by Josquin; the phrase "with the Holy Spirit" that I'm going to play for you now.

Many people are under the impression that great composers are very original and that they just get their ideas from within themselves. On the contrary, the greatest tend to be the ones who study the most, who learn from the composers around them and those who came before with a particular energy. Out of that fund of ideas and learning spring their greatest pieces. So what Cabezon was doing is not at all uncommon for a composer of his stature. Bach made quite a large number of a transcriptions for the organ of the music of other composers also. So did Mozart. So did Brahms. Etc, etc. etc.

Cabezon, whose surname means "stubborn" in Spanish, was learning from one of the great masters of the generation before him. And he went on to become the first important composer of Spanish keyboard music.

Tiento is from the Spanish verb for "to try" which is a very humble name for a type of music. Here, then is an "attempt" by Josquin, courtesy of Antonio de Cabezon:

Josquin, arr. Cabezon: Tiento on "with the Holy Spirit"

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

To be taken orally

J. S. Bach had a killer method book for organists started. Then, after a few tables, and some rules about figured bass, it broke off with the line "this can only be delivered orally." Bach apparently decided it was too complicated to try to get all of that information into a book, and it would be better to just teach an individual student face to face and with words from his own mouth.

Whether this was partially a cop-out, there is certainly wisdom in the face-to-face encounter. A lot of questions can be answered, there is no sense of one-size-fits-all; you can react to a students particular needs, strengths, deficiencies, and speed of progress. Many of us dispense knowledge on the internet, and while it is certainly tempting to want to read something for free and do it at one's own pace and in one's own way, without having the responsibility of responding to another human being, it can obviously lack something. And being sure you can really get a student from point A to point B when you barely have any contact with them is surely a hazardous way to go about it.

People ask me questions about piano playing all the time via email and the questions page and I usually feel that it is not optimal to have never met them or heard them play, although I may be able to make a pretty good guess at what they need to know and what their skill level is just from what they've told me (or how). But I usually wind up wishing (and probably recommending) that they have a teacher, a human being in the room with them (or at least on Skype) who can give feedback to what they present and find a way (and that often requires a virtuosity of teaching strategies) to unlock something in them that they didn't notice on their own.

Of course, being in the hinterlands with no good teachers and an internet connection invites the resources the web can provide. Even with hundreds of hours of lessons I have myself found useful videos that I can watch and learn from great musicians. It helps, though, if you know what you are looking for.

Back to what I said last week. The part of practice where you diagnose, and propose a solution, and go about improving each spot, in short, knowing how to effectively practice: that is why we need teachers. Having studied with so many good ones for so long I am generally able to be my own teacher these days. But even established musicians, before giving important concerts, like to have some personal feedback. It's not likely to be in the area of correcting notes and posture, but all the same it is the type of thing that only a trained human being will notice, and it will come through observation.

Observation, and adjustment. That never ends. Whether you are listening carefully to every nuance you play, or your teacher is. And until you are able to do it yourself, you need a teacher.

Think about it, young people. Of all ages.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Let's go back to the beginning

Do you find old things exciting? Really old.

I find it fascinating that human beings have this special power: sure, ants can carry ten times their weight, grasshoppers can jump many times their height, cheetahs can run faster and whales are bigger, but human beings can throw their voices vast distances across time and space.

The music we are going to listen to today was written some 650 years ago. It is the earliest keyboard music that has been discovered to date. It is thought to date from the middle of the 14th century, and comes to us from a monastery in the little town of Robertsbridge, England, where some of the houses also date from the 14th century. It is known as the Robertsbridge Codex. In reality it is simply two leaves of music containing several pieces of music for voice (there are several of these that are older) and three "estampies" written for the organ. One of them, unfortunately, is incomplete. The two that are complete are available as sheet music online, and if you want to play them yourself, you need only search for them (they aren't on IMSLP, though; I think I got mine from the Medieval Music Database).

There are also several Youtube recordings, revealing different approaches to the pieces, including different opinions about how they are structured. This is because of the complexity of the roadmaps of the pieces, as I mentioned last week.

Once I got over my annoyance, I was able to record the second one, the Estampie Retrove, with no errors and without getting lost once! Which seems like something worth bragging about, at least if you've seen the music. It's not technically difficult, but you have to continually jump around to the appropriate spot.

This is my very 21st century interpretation on a 20th century organ. I am not an early music specialist. The dynamics and registrations are not in the music; I chose them myself. I also chose the tempi. Apparently scholars are divided on whether these piece were really intended as dances. I clearly favored the idea that they were. Probably nobody in the 14th century could have played them as quickly as I did, either; The instruments wouldn't have allowed it, nor did people get to practice as much. But then, it may be that an attempt to be more authentic would actually cause the piece to lose its message for us, denizens of a century in which everything is faster and technique is at a higher ebb. In any case, enjoy these renditions; then you can look for others on the web.

Estampie no. 1
Estampie Retrove

For my part, I've discovered yet another exciting corner of the repertoire: late Medieval. For an encore I'm going to look into the Faenza Codex (late 15th C.), and the Buxheimer organ book (c. 1460). Look for recordings of those this fall.

Friday, June 5, 2015

The year in review

It is time for me to do my annual report on what I've been feeding my congregation. This is where I take the selections from my Godmusic page, which represent some of the pieces I have been playing in church all year, and tally them up to see when and where they have all been coming from. I can see whether I've been offering variety or whether I've gotten stuck in one time and place; also, where that might be.

The selections that made the internet don't, of course, represent all of the solo organ or piano music played at the services: the postlude is nearly always improvised, and I don't always post both the prelude and offertory. But of the ones recorded from 2014-15, here are the results.

Temporally, my selections ranged from the 15th to the 21st century. I played a grand total of one from the 15th, two from the 16th, two from the 17th, 20 from the 18th, 12 from the 19th, and 31 from the 20th and 21st centuries.

Nationally Germany won with 26 selections, followed by America with 25. France had 6, England and Croatia 4, and Lithuania 2. There were one each from Spain, Italy, Scotland, Norway, and Russia.

The clump of pieces from Germany in the 18th century isn't odd. That's Bach's time and place. I didn't just play Bach, however. Buxtehude and Walther and Hanff got in there, too. But old J. S. got 9 representations, 4 from the spring semester, all on the piano, only one after January, and 5 organ pieces in the fall semester. Mostly at the beginning, when it was time for the grand unveiling after the refurbishing, and at Christmastime.

Why should it matter where I get my music? And why should I do a periodic inventory? Partly curiosity. But if the world really is our parish, and if the tradition is bigger than we are, it is important not to just park in one corner of the repertoire and stay there. For some organists, it is all Bach all the time. I happen to think very highly of him, and play a healthy supply. But in order not to give the impression that the church is about what happened 300 years ago, or in Germany, I make certain to play other music as well. The 20th and 21st centuries actually led the way in terms of selections, which is not always the case, but it ought to have a pretty important vote since these are times in which we live. I refuse to believe that it is only the present age which matters and that anything old is by definition unimportant, but while we are taking our enormous tradition into account we ought to be cognizant of the voices of our own time in this maelstrom.

Since my primary focus from Sunday to Sunday is on what selections work with the scripture and sermon, the hymns, the season of the year, the mood of the service, and only then might I concern myself with whether I am playing too much German Baroque music and not enough of anything else, this end of the year check gives me an idea of what sort of balance I am keeping or not keeping. Of course, I don't expect complete equality across time and space. Besides, I get passionate about certain areas of the repertoire and don't mind sharing that with my congregation. Next summer the Chorale is going to Spain. Expect a lot more Spanish music to show up in church next season! I haven't played much yet, so it will be a chance to grow and to experience another part of the vast literature of Christenorgandum.

(note: the season doesn't really end until July 5, after which I mostly improvise the selections for a couple of months for regenerative purposes. The tallies above take the remaining selections into account also.)

Wednesday, June 3, 2015


This is the second in a short series of articles about practicing.

After the thrill of discovery comes the difficult part--Practicing a passage for what can seem like forever before the music starts to sound like music. I remember tackling a Rachmaninoff concerto for absolutely forever and being frustrated by how long it was taking with no discernible progress in sight. Then I remembered it was still the first day. But hey, it had been several hours and I wasn't playing it wonderfully yet, ok?

That's the first obstacle, perhaps: impatience. But the second?

I also remember the lesson of one particular child. He played his piece, and afterward I pointed out two very specific things he needed to fix. Then I asked him, "what did I say?"

"You said the piece was bad."

Of course that is exactly what I did not say. I did not give him a general impression of the piece, nor did I give him a reason to take away a vague emotionally negative idea and throw away everything else. But that's what kids tend to do. For that matter, that's what any emotionally immature entity tends to do, regardless of age. All criticism becomes "it was bad."

I reminded him that I did not say the piece was bad and repeated exactly the two things--the very specific things, like not to hesitate before he played a certain note, and not to play a wrong note in another spot, or to coordinate a left hand note and a right hand note better--and asked him how to fix that.

I suspect at that point I had to provide not only a diagnosis but a strategy.

That, you see, is the biggest reason most of us need teachers to show us how to practice. We need someone with good ears who will tell us exactly what is going wrong-- not generally, not in a defeatist way, but exactly and precisely provide a list of the things that aren't right: specific notes, rhythms, awkward measures, muddy articulations, clumsy technical approaches, and so on. Then we need to develop a plan for how to deal with those exact things head on. How am I going to fix this spot?

What is wrong, and how will I fix it? Very specific questions, with very specific answers. And that process is repeated and repeated and repeated until the problems go away and we can play the piece fluently.

This is why the toughest, and potentially dullest part, of practicing, is actually the one with the most going on. This is the part where if you are the typical piano teacher you tell little Johnny to repeat his song 10 times every day and with a scowl on his face like he is eating vegetables he doesn't like he plays it 9 times to see if you are checking in on him--nine times exactly the same way; wrong every time.

But if you, or the student, are really practicing, and really making progress, those nine--no, ten--times, are not the same at all, and there is an interior dialogue running through each of them that charts exactly what was good and not good about every note, every musical moment. It isn't just mindless repetition, it is careful listening and small adjustment every moment every time. Boring? I'm mentally exhausted after just an hour at this point, because I have to concentrate so hard. There's no time to be bored. Plus I just don't have the energy.

Besides, I'm not counting repetitions. I keep playing the passage until I get it right, and I don't care if it takes a hundred times. Maybe some time in the 50s I'll conk out and agree to try it again tomorrow, or in five minutes after a break, but the number of repetitions doesn't matter anyway. Getting it right matters. That can be very difficult. But after years of teachers and years of lessons, I won't let myself get away with anything less. My teachers wouldn't have. Now they are a part of me.

Monday, June 1, 2015


It is either very sobering, or slightly hysterical, to realize that a nightmare that has plagued any musician who has had to sight read pop music for a wedding is no new phenomenon, but has been going on apparently since the dawn of time. I'm talking about the joy of the roadmap.

For those of you not already smiling and nodding, this means that a piece of popular sheet music seldom, if ever, is to be played continuously from page one to page nine, but rather, some distance in, requires you to go back and repeat some music and then usually to leap forward and skip some of the music you just played. In other words, you end up playing pages one through 5, going page to page 3, then skipping from the middle of page 4 over to the last measure of page 6, only to go back to page 3 again, play two measures, and skipping over to page 7. Or something like that. It's supposed to be in the name of saving paper, which is a bit hard to imagine because the thing is already 9 pages long for a song that's only 3 minutes long and contains the same 3 chords in the same order about 55 times.

While the music is pretty simple, the thing that causes you to have to stay awake (nights) is the very real chance that you will mess up the "roadmap"--that is, get the pages out of order, or go to the wrong one at the wrong time. Musicians need their own version of Garmin to tell them, "in seven measures, go to the second ending. Then go back to page 3.....recalculating!"

If you've ever had the joy of acquiring somebody's favorite popular tune so that someone's cousin can sing it (slightly flat) for a wedding or funeral, you are aware that generally there are just a few more pages than can fit on a music stand and so arranging the music so that you can play it all continuously is one of the challenges of the job. It is certainly not the music itself.

I usually end up playing parts of measures with one hand while I either toss pages off to the side or grab them from the flat portion of the music rack and place them where I can see them, or, in some cases, just read them off of my lap until I get to the next page. The trick is to make sure you don't discard a page you will need later.

It is a pervasive myth that times used to be simple, and marvelous, that back in the mists of time life was easy, and they certainly wouldn't try to save paper by making you do crazy things like going back two pages just to play one measure and then leaping forward to page 5 unless the moon was full on a Tuesday in which case you'd skip that part and go to page 11. yeesh....

I've recently gotten around to rendering the earliest two pieces of surviving keyboard music, and let me tell you, the concept of the crazy roadmap exists from as early as we can know. These pieces are from the Robertsbridge Codex, thought to date from around 1360, discovered in the mid-19th century in Robertsbridge, England. They are two dances, and pretty tunes they are, too, but, man, what a road map!

The first one basically consists of a "chorus" and five verses. At the conclusion of each of the verses, you return to the same spot in the "chorus" and play what is apparently the "1st ending" each time before jumping to the start of the next verse (these all have numbers). After the last verse is done, you skip the "1st ending" (marked "overt") and go to the "clos." That, at least, is my interpretation. I've listened to three or four videos online and everyone does it differently. But I think the fellow who plays the historic organ and has the reputation does it correctly. There is another video that features a small, portative organ and a harp player doubling which is charming and seems historically authentic, though they only play the fourth verse twice, and skip the others.

The first dance is nice enough, but the second--puts all modern publishers and their crazy roadmap schemes to shame. It is called "Estampie Retrove" which thus far I have not been able to decipher --the title, that is. Retrove has got to have something to do with return, I assume, and indeed, that is the challenge. For, as in the first piece, one gets to the end of the "chorus" and jumps ahead to each of the five verses in turn, but the return is never to the same place in the "chorus"--instead, there are letters to tell you which measure, and indeed which beat of which measure, to return to. The result is that the "chorus" is a different length each time it is played. I would just like to brag that the recording you will hear on pianonoise was done without any editing and I managed to play the entire piece without getting lost once. Whew!