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!)

Monday, February 22, 2016

Putting on the brakes

This is the final installment in the flashy French Organ Toccata series. The rest of the posts are here: part 1   part 2   part 3  part 4  and part 5

Steve thought he'd have a little fun. I was conducting a small group of singers from The Chorale from a seated position on the living room floor (I told someone it felt like being a cross between a conductor and a Rabbi). The singers were seated on couches and chairs or standing behind them. When I cut everybody off at the end, Steve kept right on holding the note. I turned to him and said, "so you're the guy during the Hallelujah chorus...!"

That joke immediately registers with singers, who recognize the spot toward the end of the piece when, after eight repetitions of the word "hallelujah!"--suddenly, there is a pause. Dead silence. Unless, of course, someone hasn't been counting their hallelujahs and sings an impromptu solo. woops.

 The silence, of course, is followed by the grand conclusion, loud, majestic, and very slow. As we wrap up our series on Flashy French Organ Toccatas this is the last feature I want to point out--what happens at the end. We've noted that all of these toccatas are very busy--that there is a constant stream of notes, that most of them are very loud, that some of them have contrasting melodic sections in the middle before returning to the atmosphere of the opening, that the overall plan of these pieces is actually very simple but the shower of notes makes them sound complicated, and that they usually get louder toward the end, crescendoing to a mighty climax.

But all good things must come to an end. And if the piece is chugging along at 80 musical miles an hour, how is it going to seem over when it's over? How can you just suddenly stop a piece that hasn't even come up for air in several minutes and not seem as if you'd suddenly slammed into a brick wall?

Handel found the answer. Silence. It is such an arresting feature, after the constant babel, that it alerts us that what follows will not be business as usual, but instead the grand finale. Apparently, some of our French Toccatanist liked that idea so much they used it in the their own creations, 150 years later.

I'm going to post all six of the pieces we've talked about here, a grand review of the mighty French organ toccata, consisting of the piece which, for one reason and another, I happened to have recordings of (in case you were wondering about the criteria). In light of our present analysis, note the ending of the famous Widor Toccata. The recording follows the first edition--Widor later changed it so the high F continues to sound through the pause so that there isn't absolute silence before the final chords. The Yon follows the pattern. The Gigout follows the pattern. The Guilmant does not. The Dubois does not. He finds a way to apply the brakes by bringing back a snatch of the melodic middle section, as does Guilmant more fully.  Some people like to pump the brakes; others come to a stop more smoothly.


Widor: Toccata
Yon: Toccatina for flute
Guilmant: Allegro Assai
Gigout: Toccata in b minor
Dubois: Toccata

Friday, February 19, 2016

Janelle and I (CCC part 4)

This is the fourth part in the series "for organists: changing the culture at your church." I've already outlined several complaints organists typically have with their churches, talked about what a lonely position an organist can find themselves in, and complained about some of the things that happened to me when I first came to my current church. Now it is time to discuss ways to deal with some of those issues. The first of these issues was generally being ignored/forgotten about in the crush of church business, and the answer to that will be in forming relationships with the rest of the staff. This also gives me a chance to brag about the staff at Faith UMC, who I will really miss in a few months.

This is Janelle Keltgen, our Office Manager. She's been on the staff since 2008, so when I complained in the last post about being left out of the bulletin years ago that wasn't her fault!

In fact, it's pretty unlikely that would happen today. If Janelle has to print the bulletin early, she sends an email to everybody who needs to know that, besides warning us at the staff meeting. And when it comes to issues around weddings and funerals, or double booking the organist, I know she's got my back. If I wasn't able to attend a meeting and a decision that might require me to be in two places at once were being made now, I'm sure she'd be one to say "but what about Michael?"

Over the years, she has even indulged some strange requests from her organist. Once she even helped me with the pre-recorded half of an organ duet I was playing on Sunday, by playing a note I couldn't get to because of the wide reach. Few congregants are aware that one of the notes of the opening voluntary that week was played by our office manager. She had a sense of humor about it.

On practice breaks I frequently visit the office to steal candy from the jar, or to catch up on the latest at Faith--you never know when one of the stories that makes life strange and interesting may break out--and sometimes she even visits me in my office, the sanctuary. But our best time together is Thursday mornings.

Thursday is bulletin day. Some years ago I started coming in to help her with the bulletin. I was a little worried about it at first, thinking she might interpret that as my thinking she couldn't do a good job on her own and needed somebody to look over her shoulder to get it right. But that's not the case.

Church bulletin are pretty complicated creatures. True, it doesn't hurt to have somebody else proofread any document so some crazy error doesn't sneak in. Proofreading your own work can be tricky unless you leave enough time to come back to it after a period of being away from your work--which is exactly what you can't do here because she has to put it together the same morning she gets all the information from all of us. And that's the next problem. When errors do creep in, it might not be the fault of the person putting it together. Suppose the choir director wrote in the wrong number for the hymn (we usually look those up now to double check) or wrote something illegible. Suppose the organist spelled the opening voluntary wrong (what a dummy!). Suppose some minor change in the procedure for that week's service occurred that even someone who regularly attended that service wouldn't notice, but maybe the worship leaders would. Or one of the pastors changed the scripture reading and put it in the email but not in the other email. In other words, we are all prone to make mistakes. An extra pair of eyes and ears is just a better defense. Maybe I'll catch something.

And that's just a normal week. Some weeks the bulletin gets really complicated. There have been times when, just to make sure I've heard correctly from the choir director, or the creative worship team who meeting I was at last week, or the pastor, we end up having a conference call to make sure something is right. Like the week I noticed we were going to light the advent candles before the presentation (bringing in) of the wreath (which went around the candles), which I am pretty sure would have been dangerous! There are several of us who coordinate our efforts to make worship happen each week at Faith, and making sure we are all on the same page is an all-out effort for each of us.

Janelle and I kid around about how pleased I am to find a mistake in the bulletin so I can use the red pen (which she usually doesn't let me have anymore) or how depressed I get when I can't find a nit-picky mistake like a rogue period .   Like that one. Did you notice the extra space?  I must make far more of those errors than she does, and you better believe if there are any typos in this blog I'll hear about it!

Janelle is also a friend, and a fan of the band I'm in with a few church members and other friends. I think she led the cheering section down front when we played at the Krannert Center last week. We'll all really miss her when she leaves.

Ok, now I'm bummed out. Hey, Janelle, want to cheer me up with some more of those goat videos?

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Improvisation on "What Wondrous Love Is This?" for saxophone and piano

There are all kinds of ways to improvise, from tightly controlled to very free form. It's much like a conversation: someone can ask you a series of questions, to which you respond (like an interview) or it can be friends meeting over lunch--no idea what we're going to talk about, or what will lead to what. It's just shooting the breeze. That may be a bit too casual an explanation for what's going on here.

It's been wonderful to have saxophonist Robert Brooks in our congregation at Faith again this year. Robert got his Master's degree at the University of Illinois and returned to begin a Doctorate. Since he's a jazz major, he's hardly a stranger to improvisation, and he and I have "noodled" on several hymns previously. This past Sunday, given that the topic was "the love of Jesus" I picked a hymn for us to play at both services (as the anthem and offertory).

Unlike a lead sheet, the hymnal has no chord chart--and, although the full 4-voice texture does give a harmonic answer, I freely substituted my own ideas, without sharing them (or even thinking of them) in advance, so Robert really had to negotiate what he heard from the piano and adjust in the moment. We also did not discuss how many times we would play the hymn, how we would get from one verse to another, the overall form--anything. A minute before we played I suggested that he start the piece alone, which is apparently exactly what he was thinking of doing also. As I sat at the piano, I got a surprise.

Notice that Robert doesn't start with the melody. He's basically deconstructed the tune, and is playing free gestures. That was a fun revelation. It also meant the only way I was going to figure out when to come in was by listening and just going with it. You'll also hear how we responded to each other's dynamic changes, and how the melody alternated between instruments, or when we played it together, usually by slightly varying what the other was doing. Joining forces, pulling apart, trying to guess where the other was leading, trying the get to the ends of phrases at the same time (or stagger them)--it was improvisation without a net.

Afterward we had a brief conversation about it. Since I managed to record our playing at both services (notice Robert starts the same way both times but veers off after about 10 seconds and the result is quite different the second time) we wondered how the two performances would compare. We also imagined that people might appreciate the "authenticity" of being absolutely in the moment. After all, this was all being created on the spot with virtually no prior consultation. And of course people did appreciate it. Thanks, Robert.

Here are both of the recordings, from the early service, and the one two hours later. (My favorite is the second one; I think we had woken up more by then, and there is a bigger climax; though you may prefer the more introspective earlier version.)

8:00 am service, "What Wondrous Love is This?"       with Robert Brooks, tenor saxophone
10:30 am service, "What Wondrous Love is This?"         and Michael Hammer, piano

note: since the piano was on the other side of the chancel at 10:30 than it had been at 8, (so I could conduct the choir) the microphone placement is quite different at each service (and also had to be done hastily). Although the piano sound is less fuzzy at the second service, it also bled into Robert's microphone which unfortunately makes it louder than I would have liked at times. Ordinarily the piano would be turned the other direction (when our choir director is in town) and the lid wouldn't be open in the direction of the instrumentalist.

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Match

I hope you had an enjoyable Valentine's Day. It seems an appropriate time, somehow, to bring up the subject of The Match, which is a process Kristen and I are going through this year and will lead to some major changes in our lives. For my blog readers who do not know it, I am married to a double doctor--or will be. Kristen already has a PhD, and a shirt that reads "Trust me--I'm a doctor (of history)" which she thinks is hysterical. This spring she will graduate medical school and become what some people would call a "real" doctor. Meanwhile, given that I am a doctor of music, people have taken to calling us a "paradocs." We sure are.

Most people who are not medical doctors have never heard of The Match, which is why I will spend a few moments explaining it. Basically, it is a way for graduating medical students (who are now Doctors--academically, but as yet unlicensed by the state) to be matched with the Residency programs that will give them several years of training in their particular specialty. During that time they will also become licensed physicians who will be granted all the rights and privileges thereto, etc.

If you've not heard of it, you've got something in common with practically everyone. I hadn't heard of it either until a few years ago. It is a very strange process. It is also not very romantic, despite being known as The Match. For instance, you may have thought the application process consisted of notes like this being printed in medical journals:

MWFD seeks SATH [that's married white female doctor seeks state-of-the-art teaching hospital] for stimulating medical relationship. You: knowledgeable and patient, with the ability to make great coffee. Me: hard worker, able to stay awake for 24-hours at a stretch, can take patient histories and write notes like nobody's business. Are you ready to take the next STEP? I sure am. I enjoy reading (medical journals) and long walks (down hospital corridors), also cuddling with my husband by the fire once a year, if time permits.

Instead, The Match is more like a combination between applying to college and the NBA draft. First, the student applies to a number of programs in his or her intended specialty. Because there are now more students graduating each year than there are slots available in the country, the number of recommended applications is higher than it was. Fortunately, the system is nationalized, and the lengthy, complicated application can be uploaded to the national site and sent to everyone at once (except that the recommendation letters are different!).

Programs read applications from mid-September into November or December; then interview requests start pouring in. Well, if you are my brilliant wife they do. These are the programs that are willing to have a second look. If you don't get an interview, you will not be accepted into their program. If you do get an interview, you might be one of a hundred applicants vying for 2 spots. The odds depend greatly on the program, the specialty, and the monkeys playing pinochle in the back room. Actually, I am sure it is all on merit. Unless someone makes a clerical error.

My wife applied to a mere 23 programs, which is fewer than the 30 she was recommend by the dean. Of these, 16 programs (including some of the best in the country) asked for an interview. She spent the last week of October, and the months of November and December heavily engaged in interviews. Also January. At the end, it was as if she had gone on tour, which was the point of the shirt I got her for Christmas, designed to look like a tour shirt from a rock band, with a stethoscope and bolts of lightning on the front and a list of all the cities with their respective dates on the back:

After the interviewing comes decision time. We are then asked to rank programs in order of our preference. For me, this is largely driven by what city I would like to live in for the next four years. For her, it is mostly about the program, though the city matters, too. All of our choices are cities in the Northeastern United States, since all of our family, most of our friends, and much of what we know about human civilization is concentrated in that still very large part of the country. We decided it was time to get our ducks in a row:

note: Not necessarily the final order of the ducks.

Once our preferences have been determined, the list is certified, and then it becomes one important half of the equation. The other half consists of the rank orders from the programs themselves, who also rank each student they've interviewed in order of preference. Finally, a computer takes all of the programs in the country and all of the students participating in the process and matches them up, putting the highest ranked program with the highest ranked student in a complicated process that can apparently only be done (with any deliberate speed) by a computer. Once that process is completed, the student must attend that program and cannot reject the final decision by the computer on pain of death. At least that's what the contract made it sound like.

I assume they wait until the computer used to calculate the BCS poll (that's college football, if you were wondering) or help with the NCAA tournament selections is no longer busy, which is why Match Day is always in the middle of March, around St. Patrick's Day. This year it is on Friday, March 18. To give it a little more drama, on Monday the 14th the students are informed if they have matched anywhere or not. If yes, you then wait until Friday to find out where. If no, you can begin sobbing immediately, and also you have to Scramble, or SOAP, or something, which is another process I won't explain here, because we hope we won't have to resort to it.

Persons have been asking about Match Day for several months now, and many rumors about my leaving have been circulating for at least a year, so in another attempt to replace fact with fiction, here it is: We won't know where we are going until March 18th (and if you wouldn't mind, please don't keep asking). At that point, Kristen has until the middle of June to get there. I don't know yet what my departure date from the church I serve will be, and many of the decisions regarding precisely when I leave will depend on where we are going and how things work out regarding the move and the impending job search. We'll keep you posted. Watch this space.

Friday, February 12, 2016

simplicity itself

This is the 5th part of the Flashy French Organ Toccata series which normally runs on Mondays. I'm putting it here (and interrupting our normally scheduled Friday series on Changing the Culture in Your Church) so I can run a special, more personal article this Monday. 

"Beyond the obvious facts that he has at some time done manual labour, that he takes snuff, that he is a Freemason, that he has been in China, and that he has done a considerable amount of writing lately, I can deduce nothing else."

Mr. Jabez Wilson started up in his chair...."How in the name of good fortune, did you know all that, Mr. Holmes?" he asked. "How did you know, for example, that I did manual labour..."

"Your hands, my dear sir. Your right hand is quite a size larger than your left. You have worked with it, and the muscles are more developed."

"Well, the snuff, then and the Freemasonry?"

"I won't insult your intelligence by telling you how I read that, especially as, rather against the rules of your order, you use an arc and compass breastpin."

"Ah, of course, I forgot that. But the writing?"

"What else can be indicated by that right cuff so very shiney for five inches, and the left one with the smooth patch near the elbow where you rest it upon the desk."....

Mr. Jabez laughed heartily. "Well, I never!" said he. "I thought at first that you had done something clever, but I see that there was nothing in it after all."

"I begin to think, Watson," said Holmes, "that I make a mistake in explaining...."

--The adventures of Sherlock Holmes, "The Redheaded League" by Arthur Conan Doyle

Last week I made the mistake of showing just how simple an outline Charle-Marie Widor used in his famous Toccata. It sounds like a sea of notes, a welter of sounds, a vast managerie of tones, but in the end, they can all be traced back to a very simple three-notes down, two-notes-back-up, repeat, end on a C, chant-like melody. The rest is harmonic filling in.

Strangely, it was not one of my most popular blogs, which didn't really surprise me, as I had opined at the time that people often don't care to know how something is done, or to have it simplified for them, thus apparently removing the mystery, or perhaps the charm of ignorance. Show them how such a piece is put together, separate the elements and explain how they were manipulated to produce a final result, and the response is 'is that all? Well, any idiot could have done that!' which is not true, actually, because idiots don't do that.

Why? Perhaps because simplicity isn't as simple as it seems. Certainly the discipline required to create a simple but powerful outline and then to flesh it out in an interesting way is rare. It requires a kind of compositional control few have.  And, of course, you have to have plenty of craft, which requires the ability to spend little time figuring out the details (because those are easy) and concentrate mainly on the heart of the matter, which is creating the structure. The rest, as movie Amadeus said, is just "scribbling and bibbling!"

If you ever plan to write a toccata yourself--at least, a good toccata, this kind of understanding is quite necessary, but it is also essential if you are a performer with only a few days to learn one. I usually find that toccatas of this sort only take a day or two to learn and are much easier than I had supposed. This is certainly handy if you are on a deadline (which is perpetually true in my case) but it is also a help for the impatient person who doesn't want to spend six months learning the Widor toccata.

As for the listener, how does this strange combination of simplicity and apparent complexity work its magic? Do we somehow, whether we know it or not, sense the outlines, or at least realize the simple elements in the constant repetition, uninterrupted babble of notes, or steady increase in volume? And does the spray of pitches then not seem like an incomprehensible, messy reality, but a welcome, dazzling effect? Somehow, these pieces, fast, loud, full of glittering detail but simple of construction, have held a mesmerizing effect on many a listener. An organist who plays them knows they have a very high yield in admiration, particularly because if you understand the fundamental makeup they do not take long to learn and yet the organist is seldom as popular as after playing the Widor toccata, or something similar.

I'll leave you with another example of a toccata I forgot about when I opened the series. It is a charming little number by Pietro Yon, known best for composing "Jesu, Bambino." This is a toccata for what he calls the "primitive organ" which means the use of only one flute stop. It is the only quiet toccata you are likely to hear, but it bubbles over with joy and good humor, which is also in Mr. Yon's long title. Toward the end (right before the return to the opening theme) there is a pause you can drive a truck through, and somebody outside our church unfortunately did, though you won't notice unless you've turned the volume way up or are listening through headphones.


Yon: Humoresque "L'Organo Primitivo" (Toccatina for Flute)

p.s. Pietro Yon was an Italian who emigrated to the U.S. so I suppose the above doesn't qualify as a flashy french toccata--except by musical ancestry, which is really what matters.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Improvisation -- a philosophy for learning

A few weeks ago I stated that anybody could improvise. This may have seemed like news to some of you. It may not have even been welcome news. After all, in order to encourage you to improvise, I'm going to explain what goes on in order to achieve it, and explanations are, interestingly enough, not welcome in all quarters. I've had students before who seem disappointed when they hear me explain or analyze the musical elements in a composition which shed light on how a particular composer wrote something. It's as if I took the magic out of it, and now it just doesn't seem that dazzling anymore now that their ignorance has been removed.

In that case, you and I are going to have to differ. Let me simply state that I have no fear of explanations. An explanation cannot ruin the great and true mysteries of art. Understanding how to spell and use good grammar does not make "War and Peace" any less wonderful. An inspired improvisation by a remarkable improviser is not any less just because we have some insight into the processes by which the music came about. Being able to make small talk at a party does not mean you will go home and write the next "King Lear."

In other words, assuming great art will come out of this is beyond the scope of this project. That is really up to you. But achieving improvisational competence? The ability to create some kind of cogent, coherent music on a moment's notice? The ability to negotiate your way through a musical sentence in a way that is at least inoffensive and perhaps vaguely interesting, and probably even magical to members of your congregation when they find out you are doing it (if you tell them)? Sure, that can be arranged. We can even lay the conditions under which you just might be inspired to go to great heights. Who knows? But to achieve any of this, you will have to master the musical elements.

Great! So how do we do that?

There are three basic plans of attack. They are based on the idea I outlined a few weeks ago when we began regarding the three basic ways we approach the languages in which we communicate every day (such as English). Those ways, you'll recall, were speaking, writing, and reading.

The ways I am proposing we investigate improvisation are these: (1) we began cold, and simply explore the universe of sound using our ears and our judgement, (2) we start with musical notes in front of us written by somebody else, and we manipulate those notes, either by ornamentation or paraphrase, or even re-composition of some parts, or (3) we learn lots of musical theory so we can glean the rules behind music as it has been created by others and thus learn in an abstract manner how to do it ourselves.

These three ways suggest different methods, but our plan is to combine them, even though they may seem opposites. For one thing, if you don't know it already, it will become evident that different people have different biases when it comes to learning, and by alternating between diverse learning procedures, we are more likely to play to any person's strengths at one time (and weaknesses in others). For another, relating to language is also done in a variety of ways, and these ways cross-pollinate one another. For instance, when you are talking to someone at a party (improvising in English or another language), you might be talking about something you have just read, in which case, the words of others have become filtered through your own experience and are now part of your own speech. Or writing (composition) may serve as a substitute for speaking, such as when you are sending an email to a friend whom you were not able to reach by phone.

People who have been reading the first two installments in this series (one and two) will note that I've already begun my "practicum" with a little exercise involving written music and its transformation. This should serve as a reminder that improvisation does not happen in a vacuum. Usually one's own ideas spring at some remove from written (or heard) material that already exists. When you have a conversation, you do not make up your own words and place them into sentence by alternate rules of grammar (usually). Particularly not if you want to be understood! In other words, improvisation does not imply creation of everything! This is why improvisation is a craft, and a craft can easily be learned. Procedures exist because they work and they satisfy customs and traditions that have themselves been found satisfactory and meaningful. You are not creating the elements themselves, you are taking elements that exist already and putting them together to create something that is wonderful and unique. That is where improvisation becomes an art.

Monday, February 8, 2016

The Gift to be Simple

If there is anything that is obvious to the average listener of these Flashy French organ toccatas, it's that they have a lot of notes, and those notes go by fast. I'm going to use my powers of musical deduction now to leave you as un-impressed as possible. Far from convincing you that I am using musical magic to get my fingers to move that fast, I want to slow down the musical maelstrom and show you the outline behind those notes. We're going to do it in steps, by a kind of musical subtraction, taking away the superfluous notes a step at a time.

Here is, for instance, a bit of the Widor toccata. First you'll hear the opening bars of the right hand just as Widor wrote it,  using just a couple of  flute stops (already less impressive, isn't it? The volume is part of the piece's aura). Then I'm going to "subtract" the notes that do not change from group to group--that's most of them. The ones that are left in each group--three of them--, I'm going to play loudly on one manual, and for now you'll still be able to hear the remaining five notes in each group, played softly.

Now, Since the second note of that remaining group of three loud notes note is simply the lower neighbor tone and the third note is a repeat of the first note, I'll take those two notes away also and only play the first note of the entire group loudly, and the rest softly.

After that, I won't play the remaining notes at all. Now all the notes have disappeared except the backbone of the phrase.

The last thing I did was to play that nine note tune in the pedals, which is actually what Widor himself does with it shortly after, and again at the triumphant return two-thirds of the way through the piece. The left hand, as it happens, also echoes this little tune. It's just three notes down, two back up to where we started, back down, back up, and a final C. And even that, it turns out, is the same thing twice. The first eight notes are really just four notes repeated with a C on the end.

Now let's listen to the entire process I've just described, with the subtractions done one at a time. It is a bit like listening to a "Cheshire toccata" with bits of it dispersing until only the grin is left.

That's right, the whole opening phrase--the whole piece, really--reduces to four notes.

Not that the other notes don't matter, of course. Music theorist Heinrich Schenker once showed pianist Arthur Schnabel his system for finding the most important notes in a piece of music. Under his system (unlike what I just did) entire pieces reduce to just a few structurally important notes. Schnabel's comment upon seeing this was that "you've taken away all my favorite notes!"

Don't worry; we'll put them back. Those rapidly fleeting notes create a visceral excitement. And when that simply tune comes rolling through the pedals it is a even a physical challenge to play them. Widor places them in double octaves at the extreme ends of the pedal board, meaning a short man like me can barely get his legs parted wide enough to play them. It feels like trying to straddle the universe.

And it is the difference between something that could easily be chanted by monks and what appears to be an epic organ toccata.

And yet, that outline is there all the same. And for those who can hear it, much less write something like it, it is a way to organize all of that information, and to understand it. It does not make it less fascinating. After all, I'm sure the designer of the Taj Majal knew the basic principles of architecture, but still created a masterpiece out of these simple ideas. So it is with the Widor. We could go on studying the piece, and I could point out how the it breaks into sentences and paragraphs and repeats those four notes in different keys and modes, again and again, and by the end we could marvel at how something that ---well, childish, really--could add up to something so impressive.

Because that kind of simplicity isn't lazy or ignorant, or unable to be complicated. It is the sign of a master at work, organized, methodical, and yet able to provide flashes of insight, exploration, genius.

It is a gift.


After I wrote this I learned that the French would like to KEEP all those extra notes--and letters--thank you very much! This article is from The Guardian about attempts to simplify the French language and the controversy it is causing in France.

Friday, February 5, 2016

for organists -- Changing the culture at your church (part three)

When I joined the staff at Faith church in 2005, I became part of one of the hardest working, most enjoyable group of folks you will find in a church, or anyplace else. It did, however, become evident that they were used to thinking of the organist in the manner in which churches often think (or don't think) of such a position.

It isn't that anybody was mean about it. This also was obvious from the beginning. Nobody was trying to shun me or box me out of anything. It's just that, if you are an organist in a church in many many churches, there is a pretty good chance that you simply don't enter into the consciousness of the other staff members. You are just there. On Sunday.

As I mentioned last time, this can manifest itself in a variety of ways, usually not good. Some of these things are small. That first year we had a "ministry fair" with tables and displays. One of them listed the music staff at the church--everyone except the organist. I mentioned this to the choir director, and she got a magic marker and added me. Problem solved. Later, when we got a new music office, I also asked to be listed along on the door so people would know that that was also my office.

Forgetting to mention the organist is not unusual in churches. I can't tell you how many times over the years I've had some reason to want to get in touch with an organist from another church and find that the church website or bulletin doesn't list an organist. Dear churches: please list your organist! Someone might be trying to contact them (or just be curious). I don't mean put their name in lights or rechristen your church the First Church of [insert name of organist], I just mean, along with everyone else, mention that they have a role, too.

Getting left off a list is not the end of the world. But sometimes people can make decisions that affect your job, in absentia. In those first years, our office assistant would sometimes print the church bulletin a day early and, having informed the choir director (who chose the hymns and anthems) forget to mention that to me. When I came in a day later with my selections for the week--oops! Meant to tell you! Well, we can try again next week. Still, there were other times when things got a little dicey. Because the Saturday night service took place in a different sanctuary than the one in which weddings occurred, said office assistant would sometimes reason that it was ok to schedule weddings at the same time. The problem there was I had just been double booked. The same thing nearly happened once when two worship services in different sanctuaries were also going to be scheduled simultaneously. The staff discussed the potential noise problem (the two facilities are across the hall from each other and it was feared noise from one would leak into the other space) and concluded that there would not be a problem. I read this in the minutes from the staff meeting that I had been unable to attend and quickly realized that not being physically present meant that it had not occurred to anybody that they were thinking of having me play two services at once. (I'm pretty good, but sheesh!)

I can grin about it now. In fact, while this may seem like a list of grievances, I'm really typing this with a smile on my face. First, because I know they meant well, and second, because the situation today at Faith church is very different than what it was then. I know none of those things would happen today. How did the change come about? Gradually, to be sure. And in a lot of wonderful ways I'll explore next time. But the short answer is relationships.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Improvising an alternate introduction to the doxology

Before we get tangled up in too many rhetorical flights of improvisational philosophy (that's for next week), let's do something very practical. Let's improvise something.

The project I have in mind is short. It should come in quite handy for church organists and pianists. I'd like to take the tune known as "Old Hundred" which is used as the doxology in many churches (meaning you would play it every week), and create--improvise, an alternate introduction for it.

[here's the score if you need one]

Many organists simply play that last phrase of the hymn to tell the congregation to rise and get ready to sing. We are going to work our way through the whole thing, using this as our plan:

The first phrase will be simply the melody in octaves
The second and third phrases will consist of two-voice counterpoint
The last phrase will be in full chords straight out of the hymnbook

Looking at our overall plan, it is apparent that the only real improvisation that will take place will be in the second and third phrases of the music. By my count, that is 16 melody notes for which you will supply your own created notes--one to "go against" each note of the melody. You will, in other words, only be responsible for the creation of 16 notes. And if even that seems a little too risky, you could always write down what you are creating so that if you have a church job, when the time comes to play it on Sunday, you aren't actually trusting to the inspiration of the moment. As your comfort level increases, though, you might try improvising in the actual service, if not now.

To prepare:
play the melody of the doxology alone. Learn it a phrase at a time, and memorize that melody. You'll want to know the melody well enough that you can spend all your concentration on the duet you will create in the left hand to go with it. If this takes a couple of days, take the time. Internalize it. Memorization is going to turn out to be an important part of improvisation (!) Finally, apply the
"postlude test"--so named because people invariably come up to the organist and try to hold a conversation with him while he is still playing the postlude. If you can play the melody of "Old Hundred" fluidly while holding a conversation, you have definitely got it down!

Now we are going to create some two-voiced counterpoint. The way to do this is to play each melody note in the right hand, and compliment it with a single note in the left hand which sounds pleasant in combination with it. (If you'd like a fancy term for it, this is known as 1st species counterpoint).

Since you are in the key of G major (unless you happen to play the doxology in another key; then substitute that key for G) you will choose notes belonging to that scale, which conveniently happens to be all the white keys save F, which is instead F-sharp. In order to create effective counterpoint, you will want to try other members of the same chord (hint: if you get stuck, playing the soprano and bass voices alone, or the soprano and alto alone, or the soprano and tenor alone, of the written score will sound like what we are trying to achieve here). Generally you will want to avoid playing the same note as the melody, although that can work in a pinch. Even better, you will want to try not simply to satisfy the immediate needs of pretty harmony between each melody note and yours, but try to build a line that, if you played it alone, would itself make a nice melody. It should have some direction and melodic interest. If you can do that, you've really accomplished something! Congratulations!

Of course, that will also get easier to do once you aren't limited to playing a single note of the created accompaniment to a single note of the melody. Although harder to do, perhaps, allowing the created voice to move in eight notes, or even sixteenth notes (2nd or 4th species counterpoint, respectively) will create some really interesting lines, and once you know how to do this (which I understand may take some time) could get rather addictive, and you might find yourself wanting to introduce any number of hymns this way!

Monday, February 1, 2016

The boring bit in the middle

Now let's turn to the part of the toccata that gets no respect: the middle part. It was referred to on one site I visited as "the boring bit in the middle."

Mssrs. Gigout and Widor avoided this part altogether--Gigout because his toccata was short and he didn't need a contrasting section, and Widor because he decided to make the entire toccata about one theme--though his entry did quiet down in the middle, and if anyone is going to fall asleep, that's when it would happen.

But any piece of a considerable length; say, more than three minutes, is likely to have a contrasting section. It usually falls in the middle, to give the whole piece a broad ABA architecture. And whereas the first section of a french toccata is generally loud, fast, in a continuous whirl of notes, and completely unsingable, the middle section is usually slow, stately, soft, and melodic.

Theodore Dubois' toccata is a good example of this. For the first three minutes, all is active--then the last triumphant chord dies away, and what we hear next is a hymnlike melody completely unlike anything that had happened before. Unfortunately, human beings often don't have patience for this sort of thing, particularly now that we are so accustomed to sensory overload. I once saw a video of Diane Bish playing this toccata, and when she got to the part in the middle, she began talking over the music, assuming her audience was going to zone out at that point and she'd better entertain them with pictures and stories about sightseeing in Europe until the fast part came back.

This was a shame, partly because it is a nice, if innocuous, little melody, but also because it really doesn't go on too long before something else happens--the first part begins to want some attention.

What begins to happen in this section is that the rapid theme from the beginning is revealed in little snippets--one measure here--then back to the slow melody--then another measure--then back to sleep--then again we here it. It is as if the piece is waking up again, or spring is springing, or something is gradually coming to life. It is a process. It will take some time, But it is not like watching grass grow. It will only be a minute or two. Wait for it. Long for it. Get excited. It's coming. And then--it's here!

Actually, there are several other ways you could describe this phenomenon. Maybe the two musical elements are fighting for supremacy. Maybe they are just negotiating. Maybe the music is trying to make up its mind. There are plenty of emotional conclusions you could draw from this--and you'll have plenty of chances, because this sort of thing happens in any number of pieces of music. Once you know to listen for this, you'll hear it often, particularly in French organ toccatas. Particularly in our next piece, the one by Alexander Guilmant

Like the Dubois, Mr. Guilmant makes it very clear when the second part begins. In fact, when the first part of the Dubois ends, you could easily think the piece is over! And if that architectural feature is obvious to you, keep it in mind. When the piece actually DOES end, When you've heard that entire opening section again to its conclusion, it will basically end the same way--except perhaps for a little additional tail (coda) at the end.

Mr. Guilmant, however, does not want us to make the mistake of thinking his piece is over so soon, so the chord he choose to end the section with (great chord, by the way) is noisy but inconclusive. And THEN the quiet, songful part begins.

It's not long, however, before the fast theme of the opening reappears. In fact, it is making little asides between each phrase of the long-breathed melody. Then gradually it starts to reassert itself, in different keys and registers, still alternating with the slow tune, and finally, thrusting itself back into the limelight, there is a very dramatic moment as the organ grows to full blast and the opening returns. Can you hear it? It's quiet now, but soon it will be in full force. You can be caught off guard by it, or you can notice it happening right from the start. It isn't as easy, or natural, to listen for, but can be very rewarding. And, with classical composers doing this all the time, it makes a lot of "boring parts" suddenly less boring.

Transition may be the least natural part of being human. We like to dance, to sing, and to react to what is happening right now, but we aren't very good at preparing for future events. Sometimes we like to deny them, like refusing to wear a coat out of the house because it isn't cold right now (but it will be in a few hours according to the weather forecast). This applies to larger social conditions as well. With gas prices their lowest in years, many Americans are lining up to by the same kinds of gas guzzling vehicles that caused so much pain at the pump the last time prices were high, setting themselves up for the same thing all over. When things are going well, people always think they are going to last forever...and when they aren't going well, it's the same story. But why plan ahead, anyway?

The point of my little sermon is that listening for process, for transition, for the start of something new or its return, isn't just something to keep us from being bored in the concert hall; it's also a life skill.

Guilmant: Allegro assai