Friday, July 15, 2016

just checking in

This has been, if you've been reading the blog for a while, an odd semester.

Back in March I was diagnosed with cancer, which, as I mentioned in The Temerity of a Tumor, might well require an interruption in this blog. And well it did. Fortunately it was a type of cancer that is not likely to require such an interruption--or early termination--in my life itself.

After experiencing nearly every drug-related side effect, including one very rare one that messed with my vision (severe photophobia) and another with my hearing (which seems to be temporary) it was pretty clear I wasn't going to be up to my usual schedule. And what good days there were I spent updating folks about my condition on a special cancer-related blog. This didn't leave much time or energy for this one, although there have been a few entries between now and then.

Typically about this time of the year I take time off of this blog for the summer months, and, considering I am just beginning to feel normal again after what might, if I'm lucky be my last treatment, it could be a chance to get back into the blog. Or it could be a chance to rest.

I'm choosing to rest. Also, we've moved in the middle of all this, and I need to start looking for jobs and meeting people and resuming life in my new environment.

As I write this, I haven't had the tests yet that will hopefully pronounce me cured of this, so my struggle isn't actually over. I'll know that in a few weeks. In the meantime, I am updating the homepage of itself, every Tuesday, with a different recording and several articles. And new recordings continue to come in every week, through the 1st of August, when I'll be taking a break from them, too. They all date from before the cancer, but hadn't been released yet. That's what can be gained from working ahead.

Anyhow, I hope you are in good health and are having a pleasant summer (or winter, depending on where you are). Regardless of what happens in a few weeks, I plan to see you in the fall, most likely around the 1st of October. Let's enjoy this thing called music while we live and breathe.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Sin, sin, sin!

The following is Pianonoise's first, and so far only, book review:

There are two images to take note of on the back of Steve Shoemakers' new book, "A Sin a Week" (Mayhaven Publishing). One shows a heavily bearded, stern looking preacher who could have led an 1890s temperance rally, railing against the dangers of demon rum. The other shows him, less bearded, sitting at home, eating an entire bowl of frosting, licking the spoon. Does he preach? Sometimes. Does he have a wicked sense of humor? Sometimes. And there is plenty of subtle wisdom in between.

A good example of that is the poem that begins the book, "Lie." Steve's titles are usually what we can safely assume are the particular sins being addressed. What we can't always safely assume is whether these are things to avoid or not. As the prologue puts it, these are [poems] "for folks with the inclination to sin and ability to do wrong, but who have run out of bad ideas." Surely not, Steve? A preacher actually encouraging us to go wrong? But in the opening strophes we get a kind of apologia for sin. And not the cloven hoofed, oh come on, everybody's doing it variety of defense, or some version of I've got it coming to me, which we could all see coming a mile away, and know with our superior moral compasses just had to be something good people wouldn't do, but a much more sinister, snake-in-the-garden kind of argument. Riffs on the theme: this will actually be good for other people, not just for selfish you. If you want to love your neighbor, and who shouldn't, wouldn't you want to lie if it will make everybody feel better about themselves? We lose our innocence only later in the poem when we realize that that could also mean everybody else is telling little white lies to us, too. That just isn't right!

A more telling adumbration of this goodness-of-sin argument is the justification of greed in the 7th poem. The speaker beings by complaining that somebody else got something they should have, too, but inversely ("I don't want too much, I just want my fair share.") It is hard not to hear the voice of Lucy van Pelt exclaiming "All I want is what's coming to me! All I want is my fair share!" But then Steve adds one word to take it out of its self-centered orbit: "Equality." It's all about justice, now, isn't it? Are you sure that's a bad thing? Or is it just self-justifying rhetoric? C. S. Lewis said that he was never less sure about a doctrine of the faith than after he had just defended it in his own words and thoughts.

Not that all the poems are subtle. When it comes to themes like televangelists, ambitious politicians, or conformity, the poems are solidly in the don't-try-this-at-home camp. The author doesn't need to work very hard to have this reader nodding along comfortably, and they do at least provide a contrast with the other poems, which, although they aren't in themselves the more interesting of the bunch, do keep us off balance as to whether or not we really want to try, or not try, a particular sin. Being uncertain about the advisability of a given sin encourages us to think.

The book doesn't actually call these selections "poems," as the author has pointed out in a radio interview, and often they neither rhyme, nor show the kind of metric discipline one might expect from a poem. Some of them have a mostly prosey quality. But there are times when a poetic technique shines through, and despite what you may have assumed in English class, this can shed light on the poem's meaning, as well. Poem nine is called "Follow" and involves a curious rhyming technique. Twice the poem devolves to near slogans. "Have faith. Do not pass or brake" it exhorts. Only faith doesn't quite rhyme with brake, does it? (it's a vowel rhyme, I guess). And later "Follow the leader. Peace comes from trust and order." Another pair (leader/order) that doesn't quite rhyme. Which makes us just uncomfortable enough to wonder, should we really be following this leader after all? It seems like a smooth ride--slogans always do, and it is often because they rhyme. But in the realm of the not-quite, we have to pause. And, of course, the sarcasm makes it a bit more obvious. This is supposed to be a sin, but if it wasn't at least a little inviting, why the need to warn away from it? Or have the curiosity to indulge?

Which brings up the work of illustrator T. Brian Kelly. Often Kelly can simply take something from the poem literally to make it humorous, as he does here with the last line ("decisions pass as easily as fence posts") showing a line of people, heads buried in newspapers, sitting side-saddle on a fence in a long line. Generally he follows something from the poem pretty closely, which is often startling enough, unless the poem itself takes an obvious line on whether or not we should view this sin with moral outrage or more ambiguity. A few of the sins even double as religious practices. But then, how we react to the sins may themselves be sins. In one poem, Steve describes a neighbor's car in detail, without apparent jealousy, until the last line, when he sniffs in regard to the high powered headlights that his neighbor leaves on even during the day "when the sun is shining you can't even see them." There are several poems about cars, and one of my favorite lines in the book is the exhortation that concludes the preceding poem to "shoot the tires relentlessly. " It's the relentlessly that gets me. Often it's just that one word that turns a poem into something great. 

Visitors to Steve's Facebook page know about his penchant for limericks, which makes it all the more curious that he saves the form for the last poem in the collection. The limerick trips along in its rhythmically hypnotic way, perfect for traipsing along happily on the road to hell (and, happily, more book sales!), which is, after all, paved with good intentions. It might take a preacher to get us to think about where we're going and whether or not we ought to change course before we regret it. Most preachers would attack the problem with righteous fury, fulminating against a long list of things not to do. Steve's method is to get down and wade in there with us. With humor, insight, and a lot of questioning, these poems have more to them than meets the initial eye. Steve has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and does not have a lot of time with us. He has complained that this group of poems is "not much for a life's work." But besides the decades of pastoral care, the lives he's touched, the good he's done in his community, and countless things that one person won't even know, this slender volume, finally published after 25 years, contains a lot more than a word count. A good poem presents a lot in concentrated form. These poems are short--rarely more than a page (in fact, only one requires you to turn one; another is less than  a word long). But even some of our greatest poets (T. S. Eliot comes to mind) published very little. Although epics have been written in meter, just as often the reader is left with few words and much to think about, inviting continual engagement with the same poem or poems. Send for a copy--you'll want to keep it on a near shelf. For future reference. Just in case you can't kick the sin thing after a mere 12 months--or you don't want to.

A Sin a week is published by Mayhaven publishing, and is available from or by writing to Mayhaven publishing, P. O, Box 557, Mahomet, IL 61853

Monday, May 23, 2016

out for a walk -- be back changed

Two composers went for a walk.

This isn't a joke. It just sounds like the setup for a joke. Let me tell it to you first.

The composers names were Johannes Brahms and Gustave Mahler. Mahler was a strapping youth full of energy and the standard cocktail of arrogance and assurance that comes with not having had your abilities tested sufficiently in the real world. Brahms was near the end of his life. He had accomplished much but he was naturally skeptical about the direction music was taking now that he had had his own battles and won many of them. He had his ideas about music and had naturally disagreed with most of this contemporaries, most of whose music he didn't like, but now that the next generation was exploring innovations he had fresh reason to be unhappy about it. After all, in his day, music had been good. Everything had been better. Now he was old, and dying, and ready to complain about it.

They crossed a bridge, and Mahler pointed excitedly to the stream flowing by. He told the old master that it was the future of music, flowing past; time to catch it before it went by. He seemed to imply that it was headed for a glorious future on its way to an ocean of possibility.

Brahms acidly replied that nobody knew that it might simply flow into a bog.

 Most of us of us take walks for exercise. Few of us, I imagine, think of anything as serious as the future of our professions, or of the direction of human society, at least in any deep way. It depends on whether we ponder issues like this in general, of course, in which case a walk is a great way to do it, but besides the creative activity of our inner lives, it helps to have a walking partner who can engage one in a stimulating conversation or two.

The walk of these two composers illustrates more than just the battle between the new and the old, or that everyone has something to worry about. It should be a reminder to us of how uncritically we often swallow music. That is, if we swallow it at all. Most of our species doesn't listen to much music that is called "classical" to start with. The term is mostly there, it seems, to be a wall to safely hide the contents behind, out of the way of the folks who aren't ready for the challenge.

But if you go to the museum, the concert hall, the gallery, switch on the radio or television, pop in a recording, you experience something of that vast stream of human thought that has been going on in musical form for centuries. A plethora of traditions, ideas, philosophies, many of which fought bitterly against each other as contemporaries, vying for supremacy, others that rebelled against the traditions of the previous generations, or struggled valiantly to uphold them in the face of changing tides of fashion, or tried to synthesize what they found valuable in each. National styles fought battles by proxy, or envious rulers imported foreign influences and allowed themselves to be conquered in music by foes whose adjacent borders they would defend to the last breath militarily. It is a long, constantly inviting, constantly evolving, ever surprising story.

And yet, if you go to an art museum and don't read the plaques on the wall, or to a concert hall, and don't notice the program notes, or learn something about the persons and societies behind the production of the music, you miss all that. You miss the argument, and from a distance, it can all look peaceful, which might be how you'd like it to be. But you won't really know.

In this short series, we've gone out for a few walks. We've sampled a bit of the late Medieval, the German Baroque on piano and organ, and even a bit from a 20th century impressionist. And all because we went for a walk. And noticed a few things along the way.

If you missed the first four installments in the "Walking tour", here they are:

Friday, April 29, 2016

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord

What was he thinking? What was in Francois Couperin's head while he was writing "Mass for the Parishes?" Specifically, what did he have in mind for the 2nd verse of the Sanctus, which happens to be what I'll be "feeding" my congregation this weekend. I'll be doing it in absentia, thanks to our playback system. I actually recorded it in December, while working my way through the entire mass, most of which you can hear at pianonoise on the Listen page. And since our pipe organ was rewired in 2014, it can record any data from the console, included stop changes, swell and crescendo pedal movement, and of course, all the notes. So even though I'll likely still be in the hospital for a second cycle of chemotherapy, I can still share music with my congregation, which feels pretty good.

It also hasn't stopped me from asking questions, one of which I shared with the congregation, courtesy of the church bulletin. The question was: why? Given that solemnity in worship was the order of the day, and still often is, in worship, given that this was the Catholic Church in the 18th century, and given the tight guidelines laid down by the archbishop for any organist who wrote a mass, which surely would have not encouraged much levity, what would be the cause of such a light, pleasant little piece? I'll let you listen to it before I prattle on too much. It's only a minute and twenty seconds:


Couperin's Mass is, mostly, much more solemn than this. Even the Gloria, the part of the Mass which is filled with praise for the glory of God, spends most of its time in a minor key. So this seems odd.

First, a little background. Couperin's Mass would have been part of the Mass celebration of the Catholic church. The way that worked, was that monks would have chanted each verse of each part of the mass, starting with the Kyrie (confession), then the Gloria (praise), the Credo (statement for beliefs), the Sanctus (glory to God), the Agnus Dei (communion), benediction and dismissal. The organist would play a short piece after each chanted verse, alternating with the singing, except for the Credo, during which the organist was forbidden to play (hence there is no Credo section in Couperin's Mass) and making up for it with a long offertory afterward.

Part of what would determine the character, as well as the key (and the mode--major or minor) would be the chants that came before. Another thing that the organist was required to do was to use the chant melody in at least the first verse of each section, per orders of the archbishop. Keep that in mind.

Now I'll try to touch on a huge subject very briefly. It has to do with appropriateness in church music. We'll at least limit it to French organists. We'll start with the most egregious example I can think of. Lefebure-Wely wrote music for his church that even his fellow organists thought sounded much too cavalier and popular. But he was popular with his parishioners; priests could clench their teeth all they wanted. Here is his most famous postlude:


Lefebure-Wely comes much later than Couperin, however, about 150 years. He lived after the French revolution which tried to stamp out the Catholic Church in France, and after Napoleon halfheartedly brought it back. If there was ever a time for cynicism in France, this was it. Let's get a little closer to Couperin.

Before the revolution (though he lived through it as well) was a fellow named Balbastre. He was very popular with his congregation, too, playing jigs and waltzes during masses, and annoying the priests, who sometimes forbade him from playing, despite the fact that whenever he did, the church was always packed. Was it jealousy? A sense of injured propriety? He didn't seem to be taking the mass that seriously, after all. Here is a set of variations he wrote on a Christmas carol:


This was also a tradition in France. And while Balbastre was born only 9 years before Couperin died, we can trace the tradition back to the generation after Couperin, by way of Daquin, who also wrote a pretty jiggy version of a Noel. He was born 26 years after Couperin, so we're getting a bit closer.


Then there is Nicolas deGrigny, who was born only 6 years after Couperin, and wrote this gigue-like verse of a hymn to the Holy Spirit:


So it is not like the French couldn't cut a rug--or a gigue--even in church. The priests may not have liked it, but they don't seem to have been able to stop it. Still, Couperin, seems to have been relatively well behaved. The last section of his massive offertory from the same mass is nearly in the same style as the deGrigny we just heard, but the mass is mostly pretty somber. If you're in the mood, you can hear most of it in the listening room in the organ section, under Couperin.

And then there is the fact that there are two Sanctus pieces. I don't know exactly where they fit, but the first one might fit after this text:

"Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Power and Might. Heaven and Earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the Highest!:


That's pretty majestic, actually. Full stops and lots of heavy sound. But then the Sanctus goes on:

"Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!"

Now is it possible that the composer wanted to change the mood to one of joy at the coming of the Savior, as opposed to the majesty and glory of an awesome, and fearsome, God?



As usual, I'm left asking more questions, and without the time to really delve into the subject, aka read books and articles and generally do more research. I've a feeling I'll be getting to that, especially as I have less time to play the music. And as musicologist sometimes don't ask these questions it may take time to connect with more curious souls who are interested, not just in the music itself, but how it worked in its original context. The same way people can spend all of their time wondering how the Bible speaks to us today without wondering what it was intended to mean to its first hearers (which is after all much harder to find out).

This weekend, my congregation gathers around the communion table, and, without realizing it perhaps, speaks those same ancient words that form the Sanctus, as old as the oldest Catholic Mass, still preserved in our Methodist worship. And the piece I'll be playing in absentia during communion is nearly in the same place it would have gone in Couperin's church, only a little later and without the chanting and the incense. There is a connection, but it is of course not an unbroken tradition. This is a varied world, and the poor priests who try to make it uniform never manage to succeed in quelling a variety of styles, innovation, exuberance, and criticism for their efforts. But things don't entirely fly apart, either. There is still a center. And, if we look hard enough, we can still find it.

Friday, April 8, 2016

The temerity of a tumor

It's called a mediastinal seminoma. The first word refers to the region of the chest directly behind the sternum--right in the upper middle--, and the second is a kind of germ tumor which typically grows there. Not too typically, understand. It is rare enough to be a bit off-the-beaten-path medically and not so rare that nobody knows how to treat it but at least there is a chance they'll name it after you. Call it medium rare.

I mention this because I am currently hosting one of my own. Like many tumors in this class, it has grown quite large because it sets up shop in one of the few parts of the body with a nice bit of real estate undeveloped by vital organs, and expands until it has run out of chest cavity, finally making its presence known by trying to bump your lungs and heart and whatever else it assumes is unnecessary out of the way so it can take over everything.

I have a problem with that.

Fortunately, so did my doctors, although the story of my first month spent with the knowledge of a large mass in my chest did not go as pleasantly as I had hoped. It was March 2nd on which, fed up with a cough that just would not go away all winter and into the spring (it started in November, but as several people in my environment also had coughs that weren't going away it blended nicely with its surroundings and I assumed if I just waited a while it would finally clear up)--my patience gone completely, and my ability to run without an unusual amount of effort and exhaustion particularly at short distances finally being the last straw, that I visited a clinic nearby and complained of a "chornic cough" (OK, they mis-typed it) and a "tightness of chest." When an exam with a stethoscope didn't turn any problems up I was sent for a chest x-ray, and that's when they found it. Something that shouldn't be there, was there.

What it actually was took a long time to find out. First a CT scan took a more three-dimensional image of my chest. But the biopsy was what took so long, and around that, not the test, but the paperwork, and the second opinion from a large and respected clinic up north (Mayo) and than some more dragging on paperwork, while I called periodically and tried to figure out which of the 8 doctors who appeared in my chain of care for various reasons (some of whom I had never actually met or received any care from) might have gotten the results of the test.

By this point we were pushing up against Palm Sunday and Easter, which puts a special pressure on a church organist. I thought my time might be very limited, even, given the size of the thing, my time on this earth, but especially, as soon was we had a name for it, we'd start treatment, and that surely meant disruption. Either chemotherapy, which would cause an uncertain amount of it, or surgery, which would put me completely out of the picture for a month or two. Flat on my back, recovering from being pulled open like a lobster. But the mass gone completely. Perhaps.

I had to tell the staff at the church, and my other employers, that we had to have someone on standby if I suddenly was unable to perform my duties. And at least secretly, I thought, I just somehow have to make it through Easter. I can't leave my church high and dry on Easter Sunday, of all things. Just though Easter! Please.

Which in some way made those foot-dragging doctors useful, because it wasn't until after Easter that I got my results. And then another week to correct an early mistake I'd made trying to save money--I was out of network, and had to get my records transferred from one oncologist to the other, which took another week's time.

So on Match Day, when Kristen finally found out, after most of a year, where she had been selected to do her medical residency, after a long period of uncertainly, knowing we were going to move away but not knowing yet where, we finally had answers. A destination, a goal, a place for me to start looking for jobs. Future less cloudy. On our way to with the path well marked. Oh, and I might have cancer....

But I got through Easter, and somehow played about as well as usual, three epic services in one morning and an evening choir practice on top of it, no time to nap in between because we have people to see (I may have squeezed in a few zzzs after that). Alleluia!

And then I had a Baron Richtoffen moment.* I told the staff at our next meeting how glad I was that I had made it through Easter. And that, so far, has been my last Sunday! Well, I'm still glad Easter came early, and I still think it is much better to miss a Sunday or two that is not a major holiday.

I had a virus last weekend with a fever which conveniently robbed me of my voice on Friday, and the rest of me on Saturday and Sunday. And this was the week that we had decided to tell the whole church of my condition. The pastors had to do it while I was not present and I asked them to please let the church know that my absence was not due to the advanced stages of the disease, but an unrelated virus that was causing a fever. I'm sure some folks panicked anyway. The next day they sent me the entirety of the altar flowers (they normally divide these up between shut-ins--so sorry, guys!) care of the office manager, Janelle, who said that the ladies would have brought them to my house themselves, but were afraid they'd cry!

(I'm not at death's door yet, guys)

Meanwhile, we were trying to figure out just how bad things were, or weren't. Once I got to see my oncologist, things changed very quickly. He's been championed as "aggressive." He wanted me in the hospital the next day to start chemotherapy while simultaneously being available for all of the tests to determined whether it had spread. To our relief, we found it had not. It was just a very large tumor in my chest. About the size of a nerf football.

A seminoma is a strange type of cancer. It grows quickly, which makes it easier to treat. Seminomas can be shrunk very well with chemotherapy. It may only take three months. I have been told my cancer is very treatable, and I'll probably be cured completely (though that's not guaranteed). In the meantime, I still have to go through at least four cycles of chemotherapy. I'll have some good days and some bad days. Which is where this gets relevant to my blog readers.

Some of you are pianists and organist who do not read this blog to find out about me personally. I also have many Facebook friends and family who sometimes read this blog only when it contains information about me. Usually I'm here to share music with anyone who will listen and hopefully find it fascinating. But on the theory that music and life are connected, and given the major transitions we are going through this year, I occasionally get autobiographical on you. This particular journey might entail some inconsistencies in this blog. For instance:

1) I may find it next to impossible to get myself out of bed some days and unable to think straight enough to put sentences together because of the effects of the drugs and therefore will not be publishing the blog regularly for the remainder of the semester.

2) I may find that blogging is about the only thing I CAN do with any consistency, or on good days I may write several, set them on auto-publish, and proceed marvelously uninterrupted.

I can't say yet. Today is my third day in the hospital and third day of chemotherapy. So far it has not had negative effects on me. The anti-nausea drugs they are giving me are working wonderfully, and my kidneys are doing their jobs wonderfully, too. I won't be running any marathons this year and I have even stopped practicing the piano and organ. But since I work ahead I can still share new recordings with you through the end of the semester so long as I can think straight and stay awake long enough. Which isn't the problem right now--I haven't been getting enough sleep!

Those of you who are friends and family members, or concerned blog readers, can go to a place called and look for a fellow named michael andy hammer (the middle name is a good way to find the right me). I'll be putting all future cancer-related information there and not going on Facebook or this blog with it, so that we can continue to live our musically rich, intellectually curious lives as well as we can to share our passions with as many people as we can for as long as we can. All of us.

*I read a children's book once about the "red baron." Despite his success, he was never happy--never thought he had enough kills. First he becomes an ace--you need 10 kills for that--and the kills keep piling up. 20, 30, 40---I think he get all the way to 80. And they have a banquet for him and he drinks the toast, and says, "80 kills. Now that is something" as if satisfied with himself for the first time. And the next time he goes up in a plane, he gets killed. Moral: don't get complacent!

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

No place for the timid

There's a little bromide that used to be very popular on wedding programs, that, like most really popular bits of sentiment, didn't sit well with me. It was meant to be really nice, of course:

Don't lead me, I may not follow
Don't follow me, I may not lead
Just walk beside me and be my friend

Which sounds simple and lovely, but doesn't really work in a marriage or anywhere else. There are times when you have to lead the other person, times when the other person leads you, and yes, times when you both walk leisurely into the sunset together holding hands and everything works out nicely.

I bring this up because I think accompaniment works the same way.

First of all, the chairman of the department of said accompanying in college hated the word. She preferred to call it "collaboration." That does sound like a more equal term in some ways, but it still needs to be understood correctly.

There were folks who joined the "collaborative piano" department because they were too shy to be soloists, much the way violists are sometimes people who don't play the violin well enough or lack confidence. That doesn't really work in either case.

That's because a collaborator has to have the boldness of a soloist, mixed with the discretion of a respectful partner. In other words, you've got to have the ability to take charge and the wisdom to know when that's necessary.

There are some places, of course, when the choir stops singing, or the instrumentalist stops playing, and you have an interlude all to yourself. Some of the wallflower accompanists in college would get nervous and make a mess of passages like that because suddenly they didn't have the security of someone else playing along.

You could be an organist playing an introduction to a hymn or a pianist playing a violin sonata in which the piano plays the opening measures alone. Either way, you have to set the tempo, you have to set the mood, and you have to deal with the fact that people are listening to you alone, and that any mistake in the piano part is going to be noticeable. But then, that's usually true of my situation anyway. Even when I'm collaborating with the 70 voice choir, I figure that if a false piano note develops, it will be obvious who did it. No hiding behind 5 other tenors!

You've got to have the guts to be wrong in order to be right. You can't wait for somebody else to start the piece, or hide behind their sound. In fact, you often have to be ready to equal or even outplay your choir or soloist.

Heresy! they all cry. An accompanist should always be softer than the soloist or choir. That's why they are an accompanist.

Not true. There is also a line, a chord, something that is an important part of the music that needs to be heard. It may be a small percentage of the notes on the page. It usually is. But one of my most important jobs is to recognize those places. It may be that the composer has given the piano alone a chord on the downbeat of the measure and the entire choir comes in on beat two. In that case, that chord has to be the equal in volume to the whole choir or it will sound musically wrong, and it needs to have sufficient vigor to give the choir a secure sense of the rhythm, so they can bounce off of the beat that they don't get to sing.

Changes in harmony that are given to the piano, or to the rhythmic inflection--if the musical information is not in the solo part, than it must be audible. The clarity of the musical argument depends on it.

And if it is redundant--if the soloist or choir is already giving out the information (i.e., singing the same notes)--I back way down or leave those notes out altogether, to let my partners shine out. Unless they turn out to need help, of course, in which case I offer as little as is needed to help them achieve their independence!

One of the best compliments I've received is from the choir members who have said "you make us sound better" because I think it illustrates what I hope is true about my approach to accompaniment. To be solid and secure and to let your choir or soloist shine forth when they are in fine form, giving them strategic help when they are not, and, without drowning them, serving the music such that the important notes come through clearly no matter who has them.

I sometimes hear that the problem with other accompanists is that they think they are soloists. Now here's where it gets tricky. I've been talking about accompanists as if being soloists is a useful skill. I still think so. The problem is in what kind of soloist we are talking about. A good soloist to me is one who listens. Even when playing by yourself, you have to balance the different parts of the music and be sensitive to the musical material, bringing some things up and some down. Often what emerges with persons who cannot accompany well is that they really don't listen very well. Because the only real difference between balancing a solo sonata and playing in an ensemble is that some of the parts that you are listening to, you aren't initiating yourself. But if you are used to listening, to liberating music from your own physical motion, it doesn't really matter. It is just as important or unimportant regardless of where it is coming from. Besides, even in a solo piece, there are often places where the soloist is playing an accompanying figure, as in several piano concertos. A soloist can never escape the need to be a collaborator any more than a person can live completely apart from society. And an accompanist can't avoid being a soloist, either.

But then, I do plenty of both kinds of playing, so I guess I would think that way, wouldn't I?

Monday, April 4, 2016

going Medieval

We've been going for walks on Mondays of late, listening to pieces of music with the curious title "praeambulum." This is not the same as your standard-issue prelude, which of course, means it comes "before a lude." Incidentally, the German term for this is "vorspiel" and if you'd like a little diversion, Kurt Knecht has a very funny story about what happens when you get lost in translation.

The term "praeambulum" seems to mean to amble ahead of, an instruction which, while charming, is unlikely to have been taken literally, since while if you go back early enough, there was a time when organ keys were big enough to be played with the fist and, not having pedal boards for the feet, you could stand up to play the organ, still, even the portable ones were probably not played whilst walking.

Then again...

One of the functions of a "prelude" or a "praeambulum" seems to be, not to precede a king, but to presage a Divine Service*. Last summer, during my "Medieval period," I played some pieces from one of the earliest sources of keyboard music we have, the "Buxheimer Organ Book." This dates from about a century later than the Robertsbridge Codex, which I've already found a way to complain about in this space.

The Praeaumbulum I'm going to share with you today is one of three that will make their way to the pianonoise catalogue in a week or two. It sounds rather improvised, and it occurs to me that, especially after our rather rapid 20th century jaunt last week, we might enjoy the opportunity to slow down a bit and appreciate the perfect intervals.

Anonymous (from the Buxheimer Organ Book): Praeambulum super C

*of course, God and the King were on a first name basis.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Dancing the Walk

For a couple of weeks I've been obsessed with the term praeambulum, as it relates to walking, or coming before, or an emergency vehicle that isn't ready yet---

wait, that's a pre-ambulance.

You see how confusing these terms can get?

Terms that have been in use for several centuries can really lose their flavor as well. Once there was a logical connection to something; then, they lost that connection. Now nobody knows why it is called that.

The term praeambulum has been around for quite some time. In fact, when I mentioned that the term was in vogue during the 18th century in Germany, and played an example, I forgot about another praeambulum I also recorded last summer from the Buxheimer Organ Book, which dates from about a century after the earliest keyboard music known to exist.

But we'll get to that next week. Instead, this week, I want to leap forward to the early 20th century for another piece about walking. Well, not really walking so much as dancing.

Ever seen a cakewalk?

Debussy: Golliwog's Cakewalk

The custom was in vogue in the late 19th century in America, among its African-American population. Unfortunately it was also appropriated into minstrel shows and the like, another of those fads that was adored and yet associated with various racial stereotypes, hijacked and made grotesque. Knowing what I know now it is hard to approach this piece with the same innocence as when I was a kid.

I'd like to think that Debussy had only harmless fun in mind when he wrote "Golliwog's Cakewalk" as the last piece in his "Children's Corner Suite" (which he dedicated to his 3- year old child). There may be a bit of buffoonery in it, but it is not necessarily meant to mock a dance craze that James. P Johnson claimed was considered by "some Parisian critics to be the acme of poetic motion." Parisians loved ragtime and all things coming from African American traditions around the turn of the century, and they don't seem to have been burden by our horrible track record of treating its practitioners.Then again, the Golliwog dolls that were in fashion at the time and from which the piece gets its name suggest that they may not have been very enlightened after all. (then again, who really was around the turn of the century, anyhow?)*

When it came to outright mockery, though, the target our composer had in mind was a white European by the name of Richard Wagner. Wagner had come in for a great deal of criticism for his approach to music and his high priestly scorn for everyone and everything else, and the middle section, where the music slows down considerably in my rendering, contains quotes from the opening of Wagner's opera "Tristan and Isolde"--it is a very famous passage, actually. Debussy mocks it by holding its seriousness up against some fun-loving asides, rapido. Wagner would have been the last guy to take a joke like that.

Something to remember: if you find yourself annoyed by some composer or piece of classical music, and wish to make fun of it, it is quite likely that some other composer of classical music has already beaten you to it.

I hope you've been enjoying our walks, even if they are somewhat disturbing. The trouble is, we have been dealing with human beings, complex animals with multifarious attitudes which may call forth a chuckle or a frown. Or both. I suppose we could take a walk in a garden by ourselves to escape from it. The weather's getting warmer around here. Or perhaps, next week, we can try to take refuge in a church.


*or now, for that matter...

Friday, March 25, 2016


In three days, Easter will be here. If you are an organist, however, you get stuck in a time warp. Easter has already been here. The instant the Holy Thursday service ended in darkness and silence, you ran across the hall and started to rehearse Easter music with the assembled company. And on Good Friday morning, you finally got around to dusting off the Widor Toccata for another year.

If you're me, that is. I don't know what your schedule is like.

Fortunately, the Widor came back pretty fast. A couple of run throughs and it felt ready. One more for good measure. I play most of it from memory so I don't have to have 80 pages crowding the music rack with tiny font. Only the first and last two pages are up--it just makes me feel better to start with the music, for some reason, and the last page is where all the gymnastic hand crossings are. I've been playing the piece every Easter for over a decade to conclude the service, and this is the first year I've been particularly worried about it. But about that later.

We have a tradition at Faith of starting the service in darkness, just where the passion service left off. The choir sings an introit which begins quietly, and as the lights come up, the pastors remove the black sheet and the crown of thorns from the altar; then replace the Bible, add some flowers, put back the white paraments, and as the music swells and the faint glow becomes a blazing light, the choir begins to process from the back of the sanctuary. At the conclusion of the introit, the organist improvises an introduction to the opening hymn, Christ the Lord is Risen Today, in which we usually feature trumpets.

All of that is at the start of the service. Then welcomes and announcements. "Christ is Risen!" shouts the pastor. "He is Risen Indeed!" shout all the people. Except the year that the pastor shouted the second line and the people couldn't figure out what to do. At least he didn't wish everybody a Merry Christmas, like a pastor at my mother's church.

Everybody is excited, and if you aren't touched by the emotions of the moment, your nose is running anyhow from all the flowers. Boy are they pungent!

An anthem from the choir. A reading from the scripture. A sermon. A choral offertory. The choir gets up early on Easter morning and sings at the 8 o'clock service as well as the 10:30. And it is a full service. Full enough that I am not likely to make it on time for the second service, which begins at 9. But after the offertory, and the doxology, in which we bring back the one with all the "alleluias" for the first time in seven weeks (feels good!), it is time for the closing hymn about resurrection, in which I sneak in references to the Widor Toccata, and then, of course, the piece itself, which the choir always stays to hear, and, if the pastor reminds them, most of the congregation as well. Afterward, someone comes up to me with tears in her eyes and thanks me for playing the Widor. Others remember it from their wedding or a loved one's funeral.

It is a real privilege to be an organist on Easter. The choir director wants it to "sound like a cathedral" and of course, it is hard not to just let loose with the torrents of sound and a phalanx of notes, on this most joyous of days, and the climax of the church year. The organ is never louder than the final peroration of the Toccata, a festival shout of Alleluia! The general enthusiasm is quite evident.

Faith has three services on Easter morning. When they are finished their will be Easter dinner (I'm famished, despite meeting my wife in the church kitchen during the 9am sermon for a quick repast of cinnamon rolls and that Easter egg I pilfered on the way out of the house). I started my day at 6am. By 2 I will be horizontal again, as the traditional Easter excitement is followed by the traditional Easter Nap. Later on there is the Traditional Easter Choir Practice by a community choir that doesn't stop rehearsing for anything. On Monday it may seem like I will never rise again. But you organists know how it goes.

Sunday's coming!

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The right notes at the right time

"with regard to organ playing, there is nothing to it. You simply strike the right notes at the right time and the instrument plays itself."
                                                             --J. S. Bach

When it comes to accompanying, it is necessary to multi-task. Of course, you have to be able to turn pages and play simultaneously, often finding clever ways to play the entire passage with one hand while doing so. But more to the point you have to be able to listen to your choir (or soloist) as well as listening to yourself.

As soon as somebody needs help, you've got to be able to provide it. In the course of a standard choir rehearsal, I almost never play the written out accompaniment. This is because generally I am helping one section or another with their notes. I may be playing the voice parts instead of the accompaniment, or some combination of each.

But even if the choir is singing alone, without the aid of the piano, I may step in to help at any time. We encourage the choir to do as much singing alone as possible, even in places where the piano would be there for them in the performance of the music. This is to help strengthen their sense of their own notes, and so that the director and I can listen more carefully to the sound they are making. The point, after all, is to make sure they can do it. They are mostly amateurs, and they don't spend several hours every day practicing. But they can sound quite good when they work at it.

As they are singing "a cappella," I am following along in the score, and, at a nod from the director, or a whispered "help the tenors" (by which point I am probably already poised to do that because I can also hear that they aren't finding their notes) suddenly out pop a few piano notes. I don't play their entire line--they don't need it, and I am not there to hand-hold, just to offer aid when necessary. That may mean I only play a few notes every 30 seconds or so. But they have to be the ones that are needed. The right ones, at the right time.

There are also situations in which I leave out notes. If the accompaniment features an occasional clash between the piano and what the sopranos are singing, during an early rehearsal I may leave those notes out in order not to lead the sopranos astray, because they will think they are supposed to match the piano. Once they know their part well, I'll put those notes back in. This requires me to understand the relationships of the notes at a glance, to categorize not only the important notes in a phrase, but to see the notes that will be helpful (if the composer has written the baritone note in the accompaniment a beat before they come in, for instance) from those that will not be.

I didn't major in accompaniment at the conservatory, and only took a class or two, so I don't know if this is ever taught in music school, but it is certainly important. And it is a case when it helps to be able to improvise and score read, enabling one to play a few beats of accompaniment, a beat or two of some voice combination, back to the accompaniment, just the sopranos---the situation dictates it, what one hears, and no preconceived plan. It is all done in reaction to where the group is, and what they need. In concert as well as in rehearsal.

"....If you could see him...not only...singing with one voice and playing his own parts, but watching over everything and bringing back to the rhythm and the beat, out of thirty or forty musicians the one with a nod, another by tapping with his foot, the third with a warning finger, giving the right note to one from the top of this voice, to another from the bottom, and to a third from the middle of it--all alone, in the midst of the greatest din made by all the participants, and, although he is executing the most difficult parts himself, noticing at once whenever and wherever a mistake occurs, holding everyone together, taking precautions everywhere, and repairing any unsteadiness, full of rhythm in every part of his body--this one man taking in all these harmonies with his keen ear and emitting with his voice alone the tone of all the voices..."

                             ---Johann Matthias Gesner on J. S. Bach in rehearsal!

Monday, March 21, 2016

Match Results

Friday I mentioned on my blog that I would be sharing with you in this space what happened as a result of the match. If you have no idea what this is or don't care, my apologies. The regularly scheduled blog will be back Wednesday.

In the meantime, my wife has learned that she will be doing her residency in Pittsburgh, PA, so we will be moving there in June.

This is not fun news for the people of Champaign, who have been telling us all year they are going to miss us, and we them, but we look forward to lots of interesting opportunities and happenings in Pittsburgh, and feel that somehow the folks in Illinois will manage to get by without us. Until then, we are busy with the various things that make up moving and preparing for this next step in our lives.

One of the pictures I got from a river cruise during a conference in Pittsburgh a few years ago.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Functional church (CCC part 8)

Thank you for bearing with me during our four week "digression." Part of that was indulgent on my part: as I prepare to leave I wanted to tell you something about what makes this church so special. But I think that may have been instructive as well, even in a roundabout way.

Next week we'll get down to the nitty gritty. What are the issues that organists frequently have with their churches that makes them unhappy, and what, if anything, can be done about them? There will be observations and potential plans of action you might undertake to improve the situation in your church.

But part of the time will be spent, not in how to fix problems, but discussing how we react to them. When is discussion useful? What are ways to master the 'soft' answer, the firm but not aggressive stance, or is it necessary to be confrontational? Or should you just leave and go somewhere else?

Since I am not a bridge-burning kind of individual, I will rarely counsel anyone to just leave a situation without trying to work things out. But there is one area in which it seems to me that the answer to a serious problem, or a plethora of serious problems, may be to do just that. And that is the reason for our slow buildup.

The answer has to do more with the staff around you. And the church as a whole. There is really no situation on earth where an artistically inclined person can 'just be an artist,' just live for the music, or high standards, or their own education, or whatever. That never happens entirely. Beethoven had to manage to sell something to feed himself, so he couldn't exist entirely by writing Symphonies and Sonatas, even though he had rich patrons.

And when you are talking about the church, that is even more true. Most of the people around you will have different aims than you. If you have families, they will want to find something that their kids think is fun, which is not likely to include listening to Bach. If you have older people, they will have their own set ideas about what they enjoy. Most of them are not likely to be great fans of organ music, or piano music, particularly if you are more advanced in technique and taste than most of your congregation. There is a great potential for a genuine mismatch. And, since the enlightenment, many musicians have stopped working in the church altogether because they either do not feel that they are welcome to do what they do well, or because they don't believe in the mission of the church. It has not been an amicable divorce.

Organists, as in so many other things, are in a unique situation. Most organs are physically housed in churches, making almost impossible to avoid playing in church if that is your instrument, like it or not. Churches come in a great deal of variety, depending on the size, location, denominational practices, and character of an individual congregation. Some of them will welcome, even demand, great organ music, some will put up with it, some will resist. Some will prefer everything to be quaintly old fashioned, others will try to be modern. Some people will love what you do, others will try to get you to do things that you either do not want to do or do not even know how to do. And that assumes they are even able to adequately communicate their intentions. Or whether they simply assume what they like is what is right and should be self evident.

When I came to Faith church a decade ago, there were things that I did not feel happy with. These have changed over time, much for the better, which is one big reason I am writing this series. But before you make the determination to stay and try to change something about the church, one question needs to be answered. Is this a functional church?

Does the staff quarrel or get along? Do people protect their own turf or try to solve problems as they inevitably arise? Are people willing to work around unexpected obstacles so that other persons ministries can be encouraged? Are the solutions both/and or either/or? Does someone in leadership see your role as getting in the way of something they are trying to do, and why? Is compromise possible, or not?

There are churches that get into huge fights over small things. One of the stereotypical items is the color of the carpet. We changed ours a couple of years ago, and nobody raised a peep. Another big one is a fight over the style of worship. That has affected Faith, more in its past than in its present. Hardly anyone can escape that skirmish. But as diverse as Faith is in many ways, it continues to function, and, while some of its members engage in long or short-running feuds with other members or their pastors, most of the time, most of the people some reasonably happy, and most the the time Faith is an active place, in worship, in missions, in outreach, and in the community. It's something worth noting about your church, because not only does it go to the value of things that are larger than you and your issues, but it is also worth noting the practicality of trying to slowly, subtly change the views and appreciations of your congregation, and in some cases, make room for something that nobody thought they really needed before, but someday, will wonder how they ever got along without it.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Match (part two)

This hasn't been the easiest year in some ways. After more than a decade in Champaign-Urbana, I am heavily embedded in the community. My church is very happy with me, the two choral organizations for which I regularly accompany and their members are also pleased with our relationship, personal as well as professional, and nobody wants to see us go.

But for the better part of the last year, that's just what we've been preparing for. I've already detailed the mechanics of the match program Kristen is a part of in which she will find, once she graduates in May with an MD, where she will spend the next four or five years in residency to learn her specialty. It is certainly going to be in another location, and will almost certainly require a move there in June, at which point I'll be looking for new jobs in a new community. In the meantime, people have been asking me, individually, sometimes cheerfully, as this must be so much fun for us (!) where we are going to move to and have we heard anything yet.

The answer has always been the same. March 18th. They won't tell us before then. It doesn't matter how often you ask, or how much we wish we knew. It is just going to be that way. And don't you think we'll make an announcement when we know something?

But that hasn't stopped people from asking, over and over, and getting the same answer. And people being in various shades of denial and hope that we'll either find a way to stay, or at least commute. The first is a very outside possibility, and would only involve one year in a 'prelim' program which is the way of the one specialty that Kristen has decided against--with a single exception, way down the rank order list. As for the second--well, sure, I wouldn't mind coming back occasionally, but even commuting regularly from Indianapolis, the closest possibility, is not very realistic. And from the east coast?

In the meantime, everything is speculation. But it all comes to an end at 11am on Friday. Two days from now we will finally have an answer to a very important question, and when I am stupid enough to mention to a stranger that we are moving and get the inevitable follow-up "where to?" I'll actually be able to answer.

The Match ceremony will actually involve envelopes, which are opened apparently on some signal from the host, and en masse, rather than the more drawn out method some schools employ wherein each candidate is called to the stage one at a time, opens the envelope and announces to everybody "I'm taking my talents to South Beach!"*

I've joked that it will be broadcast on ESPN 7, but there really will be live web streaming involved, so if you happen to know us and want to get the 5 minute jump before Kristen puts it on Facebook, you can tune in to the college of medicine's youtube channel right HERE.
I'll post it to the blog Friday also, so whether you wanted to know or not, after the regular column gets its post at 8am Friday it will be followed by a short announcement some three or four hours later stating laconically where we are going to move. I'll put it on Facebook also. And for those who aren't connected, there will be live announcements at my church this weekend (all services) and Chorale rehearsal Sunday evening. Just so we can cover as may of the 5 or 600 people that we run into on a weekly basis as possible.

*If you grew up in the Cleveland area, that phrase really stings.

Monday, March 14, 2016

In which I give my congregation the Byrd

Listen to William Byrd's Pavane

One of the two most received compliments I get from my congregation, at least of the non-generic variety ("enjoyed the music this morning, Michael!"), is that people really appreciate having notes in the bulletin, in which I tell them something about the music I'm playing on the organ or piano that morning and why I chose it for that service. I think communication with the congregation is important, and while music itself is an effective means of communication in some very special ways, it is also a foreign language to many, and, in particular, people don't know the organ literature at all, so it is nice for them to learn something about it. I'm told, for instance, that it makes the music "more meaningful." That's a direct quote from a woman yesterday.

It reminds my of something Paul wrote, when he said he'd rather "speak five words of instruction than 10,000 in a tongue" which could apply to music, at least as far as many people are concerned. So it helps to be an intermediary. That's what the pastor does with the scriptures, after all. Why shouldn't the organist also have a homiletic function?

Yesterday, however, I fell down on the job. Actually, I've had a busy and involved schedule lately, and the piece I chose to play for the start of the service required very little practice, and while it seemed that it might fit the situation (Jesus' farewell discourse, deep into Lent) I wasn't sure how well it would fit.

Then I started to investigate.

A pavane is generally a slow, somber dance. But the term itself, though of uncertain origin, has, among its possible meanings, a resemblance to the Spanish term for "peacock."

Peacock, huh? Funny, we were talking this morning about the Holy Spirit being a parakeet. Wrong bird, but pretty close, and...

[uh, Michael? That's Paracleete, with an L. It means "comforter" or "helper." A parakeet is just a bird that says back to you what you've told it to say. Not the same thing.]

Right. So, now that I've gotten Mr. Byrd's bird to be of the proper species, what does it matter? Well, birds mean things. Actually, practically everything means something, if you know something about the Middle Ages and/or religious symbolism. I had a suspicion about that, so I looked it up. Do you know what a peacock is associated with?


It is pretty interesting that this slow, solemn, sad sounding dance has an association that seems 180 degrees away. And, given that that relationship seems to be purely etymological and symbolic, it is a very subtle relationship. In other words, what you hear is sorrow, and the presence of death, but if you listen beneath the surface, and know the hidden meanings of things, you find something very different.

I like subtle, personally. After my discovery I even wondered if I should keep it to myself. That does seem out of touch with our chosen gospel writer for the season of Lent, however. Whereas Mark shows a Jesus who is very secretive about his purpose and doings, John's Jesus likes to spell everything out with long discourses about himself and his mission and what his disciples need to know and to do.

So I'm spelling it out. But if you listen to the piece again, you won't hear it. It still sounds like melancholy--Jesus saying farewell to his disciples, preparing for a difficult journey to a place where they cannot go. But, for those who know, all is not exactly what it seems to be. Only very silently and without announcing its presence does that nugget reveal itself--if you notice it.

We are less than two weeks from Easter now. But deep inside the belly of Lent. And, if you know your liturgy, the way forward is going to get very rough. There's Palm/passion Sunday, and Holy Week, and candles and darkness and crucifixion. It is the way of sorrow.


listen again to William Byrd's Pavane

Friday, March 11, 2016

The pastors and I (CCC part 7)

This is the 7th part in a very long series that runs on Fridays for organists about constructive ways to deal with issues between you and your church. I'm off on what appears to be a four-week tangent in which I brag about our staff members, but I promise this is the last time I do that for a while. Next week we get to the issues themselves.

When they're not trying to blow up or burn down the church* to make a point about miracles to the children of the church, Faith's two new pastors do a bang up job.

They're enthusiastic, hard working, and even listen well. Sometimes, I'm sure, they get an earful from members of the congregation. It can't be easy dealing with that many people in a position of leadership. And we are a pretty easy going congregation, relatively speaking.

And, like the other folks I've mentioned in past weeks, they are very supportive of their organist, and everyone else.

Actually, most of the pastors I've worked with have been supportive, and not too controlling about what their organist plays for the morning offertory, or how he plays the hymns, or what instruments he uses when--perhaps they've all learned, the easy way or the hard way, that as long as someone is doing their job with devotion and passion it is just as well to leave them to do it as they wish without much interference. This is not, of course, the same thing as having no collaboration or input, but then, most pastors have noticed that what I choose to play is usually tied to the sermon and the hymns, and I imagine that since they realize they are getting support from me, it is natural to return it. Just a thought.

It is also a reflection of a management style. In a church our size, not enormous, but with around 400 worshipers a Sunday, and an unusually large number of people involved in ministries and missions around the church, a collaborative spirit helps set the tone for a place in which many people are able to use their gifts and ideas to make things happen. You'd have to be here to experience it all, and fortunately, when the new pastors arrived in July, they spent a good deal of time listening to what made this church run rather than diving in to fix things that were not broken. However, the time comes when a new leader leads, and having been here for several months, Shane and Sheryl and putting their stamp on the church as well.

Sheryl, our lead pastor, regularly preaches the two largest services, with their different styles and worship spaces. This helps to unify a church that has sometimes threatened to pull apart. Our associate, Shane, preaches the two other services, though occasionally they will switch services for a weekend or preach all the services when the other is away. Frequently referencing each other in sermons so that one is constantly reminded we have a pastoral team rather than just two individuals, they also praise other worship leaders often and speak well of lay leaders in our congregation. And, of course, they go to lunch with the rest of the staff on Tuesdays after our meeting, which is, obviously, for the sole purpose of being able to go to lunch afterward and feel like we've earned it. I think a 90 minute meeting is worth some buffalo wings, don't you?

*I'm referring here to two "magic" tricks that had startling results, but, no harm was done and the incidents were pretty funny, as most of those things afterward!

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Having a great time! Wish you were hear!

I love some of these recordings of mine. They're such liars!

They sound like I was having a great time playing all this wonderful music. They are full of bold gestures, the joy of life...when maybe....

the truth is I was sick that morning. I didn't know if I could get through the take. I managed to. Then again, I may have had to stitch together two takes that did manage to go well. Then I went home and stared at the wall and tried to get over my virus, or headache, or whatever was ailing me. Or...

...I was in the middle of a busy schedule. I thought if I don't do this now, I'm not going to have time later, either. (Many of these recordings are things I was playing in concert or for church services at the time, and others were what I call extra-curricular, meaning I was trying to jam them in between obligations). I flipped on the microphone, and despite being tired after lunch, or in haste because I had another rehearsal in half an hour, I did my best to get it on tape fast. Maybe I was practically sight-reading the piece into the microphone, trying to make musical interpretive decisions about something I hadn't had a chance to digest. Or....

I was several variations into a set. Then the door opened and a staff member walked in to see me about something. On the original tape you can hear us having a twenty minute conversation about some church business. When I got home I edited that out and what you hear now is a continuous performance that gives no sign of having been interrupted. Or...

It was a noisy afternoon. Several trucks went by during recording. The roof settled a number of times, making a racket. Or I spent several minutes trying to locate and kill a cricket that was singing in the wrong key. Somehow most of it got erased through the editing process. The music, serene and beautiful, spoke louder than all the chaos around it. After the fact, anyway.

 One of my favorite recordings was made while recovering from an energy sapping illness that had lasted all week. I only had enough strength to do one take. The piece is 15 minutes long. You'd never know I was under the weather.

Another involves playing the piece out of order. It was a single, 4 minute piece, but the back third of it was the trickiest, and I wanted to make sure, on limited energy, and with little preparation time, I could nail the thing down technically. So I made a few takes of the last two pages. Then I started at the beginning and recorded to that point. Without using a metronome, my tempo was entirely consistent, so that it is impossible to tell that at a particular measure (well edited also) you are now listening to me playing twenty minutes earlier.

Such is the magic of recording. Some people don't find it very magical, however, and may even find it offensive.  There is a powerful drive toward the 'authentic' which is supposed to be the unfiltered witness of whatever is happening at the time. It is rare to non-existent in reality (particular reality television) but as long as people can't see the script or notice the manipulation, they are happy.

In a live concert, of course, there is no editing. For me, recording and concerts are quite different from one another. In a recording, I assume you would like to hear Brahms with the correct notes, and if I've missed a few, I feel it is more important to fix them than to be 'in the moment.' You would also like to hear me playing Brahms, that is, what I think or feel about the music, but if you want to be assured of getting a particular moment in time, you should come to a live concert. There is a magic that happens there that can't be preserved in a recording, even a live recording. Even then you are hearing the net result of hours in the practice room and my accumulated thoughts on how I planned to play each passage, although I usually find that once I've done all that homework, I am free to interpret the music as I am feeling it at the time, so there is indeed some element of spontaneity. And frankly, I usually find myself more relaxed at a concert in front of a microphone. A missed note or two doesn't seem to matter in the midst of good music making so long as it isn't preserved forever. Which ironically makes it less likely to miss notes in the first place.

That may be true of a recording too, actually. And there are many recordings on pianonoise that have no editing whatsoever--you are hearing exactly what I played, beginning to end, no fiddling involved. I just don't feel the need to advertise which ones.

If you are looking for complete spontaneity, improvisations are good ways to get it. The other week, our resident saxophonist and I created a piece on the spot, and the recordings I posted on this blog are records of exactly what happened in those moments.

It's just that, like all of society's gods, I'm a bit skeptical. Authenticity as spontaneity has a place, but doesn't planning what you want to say, or choosing the strongest material rather than just accepting whatever comes to you as gold not have at least as much value?

And when it comes to the material I'm recording, improvisations aside, we are dealing with compositions written down. We don't know how these came to be. The composer may have written it beginning to end in one fit of inspiration, but it is not likely (despite popular notions by people who aren't composers about how the process works). What is more likely is that he or she wrote a few lines, crossed out a measure or two, changed their mind a few times, paced around, had to answer the doorbell five times between measures six and seven, finally gave up, resumed composition the next day, and what you and I possess as a finished piece of music was actually written out of order and over several days or weeks. And if it seems like the composer was in a particularly somber or elated mood based on the affect of the music, there are plenty of historical rebuttals to this idea as well. That doesn't make the composition unrelated to mental or spiritual states of the creator's soul, but not on a particular day at a particular hour. It should argue for something more permanent; a kind of experience, rather than a one-off. Something that translates to us because it lasts, rather than being an ephemeral moment that comes and goes and is not worth the preservation.

I've often said that if something is only important today, and will be unimportant next week (much of the day's news falls into this category) I'd like to get a jump on ignoring it a few days ahead of time. If it is only the day's trivia, why not be ahead of the curve and forget about it before everyone else does. It is a time saver.

But there are times when the moment is pregnant with meaning and that means it will live on. Improvisations captured on tape that we relish again and again. An interpretive gesture that I didn't even realize I was going to make until it happened. Even those moment, however, rely on those moments that came before. Ideas accumulate in us until they find expression in the moment.

In one sense, that moment is all we have. We are creatures bounded by time. And yet, we have access to so much more.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Let's go for another walk

I owe this morning's post to Vidas Pinkevicius. Last week he had guest Peter Dirksen on his podcast to talk about the organ music of Sweelinck and Scheidemann. Oh, yes, I thought. Scheidemann. I've recorded something of his. A little praeambulum.

(if you were here last week you got a little meditation on etymology. A parambulation of sorts.)

What I forgot about was that I had forgotten about it. Even as I was discoursing last Monday about how 18th century German organists seemed to enjoy using the strange term praeambulum to describe their efforts, a term connected to one that describes the act of walking, this little Scheidemann piece was in the back of my head somewhere, and yet, it turns out that after recording it last June I had forgotten to share it with you. I could have even sworn I played it in church, but my records show that I didn't do that, either. What I did play was an offering by Franz Tunder, another piece in the same key, and a not too dissimilar style. Apparently I was saving the Scheidemann for later. Which is going to be today!

I don't want to give it too much of a buildup. It's only two minutes long, and it won't change your life (probably). 

It is also very different in character from the Bach piece we heard last week. But given it's rather generic title, I suppose that is to be expected. The eternal question seem to be, if this is a "before" piece (pre) what is it supposed to go before? It doesn't always seem to be a worship service. Or anything else.

Maybe it is simply the beginning of the rest of your life!

Scheidemann: Praeambulum in F

Friday, March 4, 2016

Charmian and I (CCC part 6)

The parenthetical acronym in the title refers to the larger series within which this is an installment. That is "For Organists: changing the culture at your church, part six." I am off on an apparent tangent wherein I praise my colleagues at Faith UMC. Be patient; not only is it deserved, it will make sense to you later on. More sense. Some of it should be clicking already!

I don't relish job auditions normally. I imagine most people don't. But this one was different.

I was asked to play a standard hymn, which I could have done with my eyes closed (having difficultly with the requirements of the audition is not the issue). I was asked to improvise an interlude leading into the last verse, modulating to a new key. I did that. And as the last verse began, the choir director began to conduct, broadening the tempo. I followed. Next she happily announced to everyone in the room, "he takes direction well."  Thank God for Charmian!

It was my first encounter with Charmian Bulley, the choir director at Faith United Methodist Church, and it was a pretty good indicator. I've known her for over a decade now, and she is a very supportive colleague.

During that interview, she said a number of positive things about me, and once I was hired, that continued. When I was at my church in Baltimore, I had been the choir director and organist. Here at Faith, the position was split. Not having to wave my arms from across the chancel was helpful, but it also felt a bit like a demotion, since the folks who plan and who work with groups of people tend to form the "administrative" end--in other words, I basically lost the "director" title. (During a recent staff meeting, talking about my position, which may not to be filled in a few months, I described myself as the 'assistant to the everybody!' since I also work with the "contemporary worship director" but am not him either...) But here is something important to note about Faith. Technically there is a hierarchy, just as in any church. But like Doug and I, Charmian and I are really a team. We've got our areas, but ideas are welcome, and nobody gets treated like a subordinate.

A few months into my tenure, during Advent, I had an idea. I wanted to play a series of chorale preludes based on a particular advent hymn, one that we Methodists don't regularly sing. I wondered whether the men of the choir could sing the chant before the organ prelude, and the second week, the whole choir sing the chorale it became next. This would require taking some time out of choir practice. Now I had, of course, been attentive to our director all along--she runs rehearsals, chooses hymns, and comes up with many creative ideas for worship which I support--but here was a situation when I asked for something of her, and she was quite willing to do it. In other words, this was not a one-way street! That early situation stands for a number of other things she has been willing to do since, and of course, I hope I am returning the favor by helping her to make the choir sound good and lead effective worship.

Charmian is extremely patient. She works with a large group of volunteers, after all, and while they sing well and show up every week, some of them have occasional difficulty paying attention. If you've ever been the choir director and had this happen to you, you too should be up for sainthood: you want to begin at a particular measure on a particular page. You try to talk over the din about 5 times. A few tenors keep talking. You finally raise your hands to start the section and somebody asks very irritated, "where are we starting?!?" in the kind of voice that has the underlying tone of "hey, stupid, why didn't you tell us where you wanted to start before you raised your arms?" and of course you just did, over and over, and the person being snotty with you was talking over it. You aren't feeling very "Christian" at that point!

I didn't want to give the impression that every moment at Faith was beautiful. People are people, after all, and everything doesn't always go swimmingly. Sometimes the dumb organist can't find his music, either! She's always got extra copies.

Charmian is a lover of organ music, too. She sometimes asks that is "sound like a cathedral" on high holy days and enjoys me improvisations on hymns. It is always nice to have someone who appreciates the classical organ literature--most churches have very few of these folks, even though at Faith most people enjoy my offerings in general, but outside the Widor Toccata don't know much about the music I'm drawing from. Over the years she has made a few suggestions to me, just as I occasionally suggest hymns. Charmian has a few favorites, including the one I'm going to conclude with, which I most recently played last year when she had health issues, for aural support.
It's the

Prelude on "Rhosymedre" by Ralph Vaughan Williams, and it is "lovely."

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

ok, a little further back now....good.....keep going......

Historian Will Durant said he first set out to write a history of the 19th century. Then he decided that if he wanted to be able to understand what happened in the 19th century, he'd have to back up a bit and find out what led to the cultural and political situations he encountered then. At which point he realized that that too was caused by what had happened before and that he'd need to back up even more.

Which is how he got all the way back to the dawn of recorded history, and ended up writing The Story of Civilization in 11 volumes of 600-1000 pages, trying to tell the story of human history (Euro-centered, of course, but with an attempt to deal with every culture around the world to some degree and grapple with its entire recorded history at least in passing).

It took Durant and his wife, Ariel, most of their long lives to finish the task, and by finish, we mean they ended up in about 1815, which was still a good century and a half before their last book was published in 1975. Before that, they had planned the ultimate cliff-hanger and decided to finish with volume 10 on the eve of the French Revolution. (We weren't even going to get to find out how it ends!)

It's even a monumental task to read it all, and, having begun the series just after moving to Champaign 11 years ago, I'm about 150 pages from the end of the final volume with just a few months left until our move. I think I'll make it.

My connection to Durant may not be just as reader. In some ways, we are engaged in a similar task, what he would call the ridiculous and ultimately doomed effort to see things whole, to understand all of it. In the past five years, just in the area of sound recording, I've posted nearly 30 hours of organ and piano music stretching all the way back to the earliest surviving organ music from the late Middle Ages, including some piece based on chants that go back even further (often we have no better than a good guess as to when). It encompasses many countries, mostly in Europe and America, with some contributions from other places in the world, and includes improvisations and compositions of my own vintage and those of a few others who have written their pieces in the last few years, showing that the tradition is alive and continuing to forge ahead.

This survey of mine will hopefully grow to include every major school of musical thought and composition and every major voice who has spoken in a written musical dialect. But it cannot possibly be thorough. There simply is not enough time to get to everything that has been written, no matter how long or short life is. It will never be long enough. Rachmaninoff knew that. He said "music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music." Durant knew that about history, too.

And why should it be possible? Me vs. every important contribution from thousands of members, past and present, of my own species? How can I possibly represent all of that? And who says I have to?

One of the amazing things about human beings is their ability to fling their voices far across space and time. To continue being part of the conversation long after their physical voices have ceased; to influence people who could never know them personally. We will never even know who wrote those organ pieces from the Robertsbridge Codex, c. 1360. Maybe he died of the plague. Maybe he was not a nice person at all. Or perhaps I would have enjoyed having lunch with him. Or, just possibly, her.

Maybe I'm approaching his or her music all wrong. I try to do my best for these honored dead as well as make the music live and breathe for today, as well as the future which might still get to hear it. Frankly, as all-inclusive as the catalogue is I'd like to be able to play music from the future, too, but it's a little difficult.

It feels like skimming the surface. And it is. If I have more time perhaps I can get back to the days when I spent two years on Brahms. Perhaps. But in five years I've made a pretty good start. It's probably as much as most artists previously recorded in their entire artistic lives.

It still isn't a dent. And what difference has it made for me (and perhaps you?) It is the glorious inheritance of our species, the accumulated thought and wisdom of those who could speak and be heard. We cannot hear it all and not be changed. It is hard to imagine we could not be bettered for the experiences. How can we not share these gifts? "Let us," said Durant, "before we die, gather up our heritage, and offer it to our children."

Monday, February 29, 2016

Let's go for a walk

Praeambulum. Preamble. Perambulate.


Odd how these words are connected. Or seem to be.

The first is a title of a piece of music. It's a fairly common title from the 18th century in Germany. Some keyboard composers liked to use it. Bach was one. I'm releasing one of his keyboard partitas tomorrow on Pianonoise and thought you might like to hear the first movement.

Walking. Preluding. Strange that there would be a connection. But it is a strange world, after all. And language picks up an awful lot of idiosyncracies.

I wonder....nah. Was Erik Satie picking up on this when he joked (probably in his "Memoirs of an Amnesiac" and if you don't know where Satie is coming from that title ought to give you a sense of it)---when he wrote somewhere that before he wrote a piece he had to prepare himself by walking all around the piece first?

Now a preamble is an introductory statement -- like the one affixed to the the opening of the American constitution. It makes sense that that would make a praeambulum the first movement. But the walking part, I don't get.

So I looked it up. Took a while. Dictionaries are so specialized on the internet now that half of them won't get you any definitions, just the declensions. Once I denclensed my fist I found that:

Preamble (pre-amble!) has the Medieval Latin meaning of "walking in front", i.e. ahead of someone else. Which is even more interesting when you discover that the word "suite," which refers to the group of pieces to which this Praeambulum belongs, also means (or meant) "a staff of attendants or followers: a retinue."

So you get your people together and we'll go for a walk. Out front.

Bach: Praeambulum from Partita in G
the rest of the parade is available in the pianonoise listening archive , right here in the "Bach" section.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Doug and I (CCC part 5)

Doug Abbott is the Director of Church Administration at Faith. And believe me, I get a large charge out of the fact that the guy who runs the church is named Abbott. Hang around us for a a little, though, and you'll notice that Faith is no monastery.

Doug was also a florist before he came to Faith full time. Which means this little meme that was going around the internet applies particularly to him:

Only you can prevent Florist Friars


Doug doesn't mind a little humor at his expense--in fact, since our Associate Pastor left, he's hardly ever the butt of age jokes anymore. He used to get them every week. I'll bet he misses them (and he had some pretty good rebuttals).

But that's neither here nor there.

Doug runs a pretty tight ship, and it is a pretty complex ship to run. Faith is probably the only church in town which not only has four services, but is successful at different worship styles. Naturally this tends to produce worship wars, and Faith has in the past succumbed. But with time and effort, the church has managed to stay united. Given that I was hired as organist in the traditional services, I could be awfully partisan. In fact (I'm going to sound like Paul, here): I have more reason to be. When I was first hired, the pastor who ran the "contemporary" service refused to hire me to play with the band, even though I was quite able and willing to do it. But because it was the "traditional" pastor's idea to hire me, he wasn't interested. So, sight unseen (he was on vacation when I auditioned) I lost that portion of my income as well as a chance to play for all of the services. Eventually, after the fellow they hired moved away, some four years later, I was hired for the band as well. The benefits of being a part of the entire worshiping body each week are great.

Since I'm writing to organists, I realized the term "praise band" might be like a red flag to a bull. We'll get into that later. Just remember that feuds can have consequences.

Doug, in addition to his administrative job, is the coordinator of "Fusion"--our "contemporary" worship service. But as the guy in charge of the finances (along with our treasurer) he doesn't show favoritism. The worship spaces have both gotten new things in past years. In the "traditional" sanctuary, new carpet and a major pipe organ refurbishment are just some of the things that show that all parts of the church are important to him. This sets an important tone from our leadership, which of course includes our new pastors, that we are a united but diverse body of Christ, and that everybody's ministry is important. Of course, sometimes he has to get a little tough with vendors who don't do their jobs properly. That's when he takes off his glasses. Believe me, you don't want to be around when that happens!

Generally, though, Doug is a fun and genial guy. I spend some time in his office choosing music for the "Fusion" service, then rehearsing it with the band on Thursday nights. We hang after staff meetings--that's when most of the staff goes to lunch. He pops his head into my "office" sometimes to check about something. And he must sigh internally when I come to see him about the latest thing I've noticed that looks fishy about the building, but he rarely lets on and is his cool and collected self (he did seem a little concerned when the ceiling tiles in the sanctuary fell a couple of Easters ago!). Whenever there is a problem, we go see Doug about it. And if something sets off the alarm at 3 in the morning--well, he doesn't get a lot of sleep that night. Despite which, he manages to have a sense of humor. I know because he sometimes laughs at my jokes, which is the best way to tell, naturally.

Doug has also been videographer for my organ recitals, so if and when I get around to posting some of those, you'll have him to thank. The people of Faith have a number of things to thank him for, as well. Although the pastors are the church bosses, due to an appointment system they move around from time to time, even though ours are usually in place for a decade or more. I have no idea how many years Doug's been around, but he's provided stability and leadership for this church for a long time.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

principles of organ registration

You've managed to "survive" all of those knobs and buttons for several weeks now as a pianist trying to deal with an organ (and if you haven't, see my earlier series). Now what?

Now we explore combinations of stops that are often used together because organists have found them to be pleasing and useful. For instance, the old "principle chorus"

In the last series, we introduced the families of organ sound: foundations, flutes, strings, mixtures, reeds, and mutations. A principle chorus is basically a group of all the principle (or foundation) stops on a division (keyboard) of the organ. Usually what that means is you would draw the 8 foot, 4 foot, and 2 foot foundations, and, for good measure, you might add a mixture stop to the combination. This is a combination that is used most often for hymns. As I enjoy variety, and my congregation does, too, I would advise against deploying all of these stops all of the time for hymn playing. Depending on the size of the congregation, the building, and the intensity of the hymn's message, you may use only one or two of the stops for a quiet verse, or the 8, 4, and 2, without the mixture. What you probably do not want to do is use the upper stops without the ones below it. In other others, the 8 by itself, but none of the others alone, is OK. The 8 and the 4 alone, but not the 4 and the 2 alone (without the 8). Since stop jambs are often built vertically so that the larger numbers are toward the bottom (i.e., the 8 foot stops), you can imagine that it would not be possible for a column to hang suspended in the air without a connection to the ground. Thus, the higher stops cannot be used without using the ones below them, in order--8, then 4, then 2, then mixtures, cumulatively.

Sometimes this combination includes the 2 2/3 mutation stop as well. In which case, you will want to use all of the following foundations: 8, 4, 2 2/3, and 2.

The organ is an instrument which reinforces overtones. That acoustic phenomenon means that a sounding pitch includes not only the note we are playing (known as the fundamental) but also several higher frequencies, the first of which is the octave above. The second "partial" (overtone) is a fifth above that, and next the succeeding octave. If you include the fifth-sounding mutation stop in your mix, you reinforce that second overtone. The remaining octaves above the original sounding pitch (the 8foot stop) reinforce the first partial of the stop below that. The mixtures, comprised as they are of usually 3 to 5 pipes, sounding octaves and fifths above a single note, also reinforce overtones. The result is a full, rich sound. Remember, if you have a smallish organ, you can always borrow any missing stops by coupling the manuals together.

You might also want to try creating choruses of other stops. A flute chorus, for instance (8, 4, and 2) might sound very nice. You might do just as well with only the 8 and the 4. This is a nice, soft combination. You aren't as likely to be able to create a chorus of strings on any but a fairly large organ (Faith's only has 8 foot strings), though you could try using the super couplers (swell to great 4) in order to have that upper octave sounding on the great along with the great's 8 foot strings.

Mixtures and mutations are not good except in combination with other families, though as I discovered last year, combining the tierce and the nazard creates a very odd little sound known as a sesquialtera, which you could use to play a melody for a solo piece. You are also not likely to have enough reeds on a small organ to build a full chorus, but if you do, give it a try. If they are in tune, count that a miracle!

You could also try choruses in combination. What happens when you add a chorus of flute stops to a chorus of foundations? Probably not much. On a neo-Baroque organ such as the one at Faith, the flutes are so much softer than the foundations that it doesn't add much in the way of volume. However, if you have fairly abrasive foundation stops, the flutes might mellow them somewhat. Flute stops have wider mouths than foundation pipes, and are richer in overtones. Using 8 foot flutes and an 8 foot principle would mean you are combining different scales (basically widths) of pipe on the same pitch. Early manuals on organ registration consistently warn against doing this, but that was mostly because there was only so much air to go around, and dividing them up among weaker pipes was unnecessary waste for little effect. On a modern organ it won't make a difference.

Before we go let's talk about an exception to the idea of building consistently from the bottom. Suppose you employ the 8 foot and 2 foot foundation (or flute) stops without the 4 in between? That would create a gap in the overtones, and indeed, is known as a gapped registration. Many organists warned (and warn) against using gapped registrations, although I happen to like them. They give a somewhat quirky, intriguing sound. I wouldn't overuse them, however, and I wouldn't use them for hymn singing but only for solo pieces. Ever the experimenter, I noticed in listening to old recordings that there was a period a couple of years ago when I was experimenting with gapped registrations in the pedals. That got some really interesting results!

And that's just it. Once you have some general principles of how organ registration works, you can try a number of things yourself to get to know your particular, unique instrument. Even a 30 rank organ must have at least a thousand combinations!

This week on : we celebrate Samuel Wesley's 150 birthday (that's today!), a musical mystery deepens, I have my own Oscar speech ready, and we say goodbye to February (but not, I should note before we got another nice snowstorm! Stay safe, wherever you are!)