Friday, October 12, 2018

The Hunt for mid October

Persons from points elsewhere may not have heard, but in Pittsburgh this year the seasons are on the Julian calendar. It snowed through the middle of April, and on Tuesday we had a high of 86F.

It seems wrong to complain about such warm weather, though if you and I have not gotten acquainted, jawing about the calendrical wrongness of the weather is one way to do it. You don't have to email; you can just imagine us agreeing with each other for as long as you want to forestall doing something useful.

A delay in the onset of rotten fall weather (of the rainy November variety), or at least the crisp arabesques of a biting, non-raining October eve, the kind that reminds you of your mortality (which is why they put Halloween where they did), seems like something to laud, and yet the calendar tells us that things are amiss, paradisical atmosphere or no. Besides, it is a little hot out. I could do with some 70s.

There is something particularly grounding about the character of the various seasons. Of course, I am speaking with the bias of someone who grew up in the temperate part of the northern hemisphere, where it is supposed to snow at Christmas and bud at Easter. Halloween is when the trees are supposed to get scraggily, and the earth cold and dark. If it doesn't, we won't have an excuse to put up our Christmas lights by the middle of next week. Though I should point out that the darkness is keeping its part of the bargain.

Having a website has helped make me more aware of the world at large, and the world at large doesn't do anything in harmony. In Australia, everything is starting the bloom. And in Alaska, it's probably been night for a month. I am aware that I have readers from many locations where the situation is very different. I celebrate what I know, sometimes with a vengeance. And I hope you'll forgive my parochialism.

This week I've had visitors from Australia, France, South Korea, Botswana, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Nigeria, Norway, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, and Ukraine. Actually, that was just Wednesday.

Only about half of my readers come from the United States. Actually, a while back I tried checking the box that says google should emphasize the U.S. I wasn't doing it to be isolationist, but it seemed that since everything is in English, it might make more sense to advertise to an English speaking audience. It didn't help. I switched it back, and my user numbers are back up.

Recently I figured out that I could see which cities peopled had logged in from. On Tuesday, the first part of the list reads: San Antonio, Adelaide, Allentown, Azusa, Barcelona, Burgdorf, Camano Island, Cebu City, Chichester, Closer, Colchester, Dallas, Dickinson, Ellensburg, Fairfax, Ghent, Hartford, and Hazen. The app won't let me see the rest. It's fascinating to see things at the city level, particularly when there are places I've never heard of. Where's Burgdorf?

Probably Germany.

It is also possible to see which networks people were using. That doesn't often yield anything interesting, but if someone is using a University computer I can see which college. On Monday I had somebody from the Nevada system of higher education. And the Moscow local telephone network. Also, Carbon Lehigh Intermediate unit 21. A shout-out to my peeps in the 7th grade.

Universities and schools interest me because I have a hunch students are using pianonoise to do their homework. This is mildly depressing because it probably means that most of my readers aren't really having a good time and don't want to be here. I entertain this hunch because my numbers always go down on weekends and holidays.

What, you don't think listening to Mozart or reading about Beethoven is great entertainment for the weekend?

That's cold.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Mr. Rogers

They're filming the Mr, Rogers movie with Tom Hanks in Pittsburgh now. At least, I think that was what was happening as we drove past WQED this morning. That's where he used to work.

There's a statue built to honor him on the banks of the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh. A man who hosted a kid's show on television. So many people, remembering him and what he did, sound so grateful for the influence he had on them. Mr. Rogers stories abound. Even among people who were adults when his show aired. Meeting him was a privilege, they all say. And he was every bit as nice in person. They all say that, too.

His show began airing nationally 50 years ago at a station in Pittsburgh, so we Yinzers are doing a lot of celebrating. There's even a documentary on his life that came out this summer. We went to see it a while back. My personal Siskel and Ebert said it came with "all the feels."

But into every life some rain must fall. He wondered after a while whether he'd made any kind of positive difference at all. He was hard on himself, And, though it seems more than a little bizarre, he had his detractors.

Some people liked to make fun of him for seeming just plain too good and too nice. Sometimes there would be a parody on TV or the radio. I saw some of them. A couple of them were kind of funny, the rest--not. Some adults couldn't deal with that kind of persona on a children's show, apparently. With cartoon characters it would have been ok (as long as they beat each other occasionally), but not with a human being.

At one point he became the poster man for all that was wrong with America. The cranky old person's movement was just gearing up back in the 90s, and their complaint was that what was wrong with America's youth was that they all thought they were special, and the guy who told them that was Mr. Rogers. It was his fault for making them think they didn't have to work a day in their lives, or be anything other than a drain on society because he already thought they were terrific and once somebody has a case of the self-esteems you can't get a thing out of them, productivity-wise.

It's a shame that those of us who know this to be a load of manure can't convince the rest of you that it is a load of manure.

In the first place, Fred Rogers, who went to Seminary to become a Presbyterian minister, was basically just telling people what their Sunday school teachers were telling them--that their worth came before their accomplishments. That you don't have to win the race in order to matter (not that you shouldn't try, that is not the same thing). That you aren't a loser just because you lost a game. It is, in fact, possible for everybody to matter. To be special. That doesn't mean everybody gets the gold medal. But the 999 thousandths of humanity that never will doesn't have to feel like total failures all the time because of it. I think I heard somewhere that God loves you no matter what--from some of the same people who thought Roger's exercise in empathy was a weakness of the first order. And some people's parents try to model the same thing. What was so awful about a guy on television saying it too? Were they afraid this time we might take it seriously?

It's traditionally been in  the best interest of the rich and powerful to make sure people only see their self worth in terms of what they are doing for their bosses. If somebody gets the idea that working hard is important but that their very image doesn't depend solely on that aspect of their lives--those bosses fear-- you may not get them to stay all weekend and all night, forget their marriage and their children and their health and just go until they burn out and burn up and destruct. Exploitation doesn't want well-adjusted people. It wants addicts. It's greatest worry is that the only way you can get people to do things is when they are empty inside and try to fill it with work. If their most basic needs are already satisfied--if somebody goes around telling them they can be loved whether or not they show up on Monday, maybe they won't do it, because why else would they? And if you are a crappy boss at a crappy outfit, maybe you have reason to worry. Maybe you have nothing else to offer but fear and dependence.

Meanwhile, despite the participation trophies and all the encouragement (horrors!) it turns out Xers and Millenials are doing some pretty amazing things on this plane. Some of them are working pretty doggone hard, going out and getting what they want and not assuming the world owes them everything. But you can sit on your own butt and complain about them if you want. They are passing you by.

Mr. Rogers wasn't about the corporate bottom line. His point was that you matter first and foremost before anything else. And that life is a marvelous thing to be savored rather than a long frenetic ride through a land of continual anxiety.

The other night I was talking to my brother. My niece is on two sports teams. In one of them the coach encourages everybody, is positive, and works hard to see that everybody is motivated. In the other, the coach yells at everybody all that time. Guess which team is not doing well this season?

Yup. And the one where the coach "coddles" everybody won the state championship last year and looks like they have a shot at it again this year.

I had some teachers in high school who would never have believed this. They thought life was hard, and they wanted to make sure we knew it, too. They treated us like dog turds. I'm familiar with the stories of the teachers that people thought were rough on them at the time and then later realized were doing them a tremendous favor by making them work really hard. These folks were not like that. They were just jerks. I've had the kind that were purposefully tough on me. I could usually tell at the time that through all those high standards was a person who basically liked me and wanted me to excel. These folks knew not only how to set the bar high but to do their own jobs to make sure we were equipped to jump high enough to get over it--and to give us the encouragement to try.

I'm afraid a lot of people have lost the distinction between making somebody work hard and being abusive. Seeing someone else's worth as no more than what they can do for you is a distinct sign of the latter. And  fretting that anybody who thinks they might derive their worth as a human being independently of anybody else's estimate is some kind of godless commie is ridiculous--and one sided We are all responsible to each other, and for each other. That was in Fred Roger's bible, and he preached it, without his little flock ever knowing it.

It seems like America these days has a major case of "get off my lawn!" in more ways than one.

Fred Rogers didn't make anybody lazy, or make anybody feel entitled, or lose their zeal for hard work just because they had it mixed in with a joy of living. Mention of his name still brings smiles to all of the children of his neighborhood. Some very motivated children, I might add.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Back then (or "Serial Pianist")

Remember the good old days?

When were they, exactly?

I was watching something called the Victor Borge show, on DVDs I borrowed from the library. Mr. Borge was a concert pianist turned comedian, whose musical comedy reliably turned up around PBS pledge drives for years. I saw him once on tour. Born in the 1909, he died in 2000. Long before I knew of him, or had even been born, he had a short-lived show on NBC, in the first part of 1951.

Borge's show was interesting for the occasional glimpse into the beginnings of material he would later use on stage as he toured. But it was not on the same level. For one thing, Borge, who had arrived in the US not ten years before without being about to speak a word of English, had to come up with a half hour show every week, and had only one other writer to help him. These days, a show that airs a few times a week will have about 20 writers. Borge had two including himself, and they didn't always come up with great material. It was more of a variety show, anyway, so sometimes you'd get dancers, or singers, or acrobats, or--well, you never knew what you were going to get. And it was only occasionally about the piano, or music at all.

Actually, it was really about cereal. You just knew the show's sponsors were constantly telling the host to plug their cereal more, and after a couple of months, the two 90-second commercials had grown to three. The host had to mention them on the air a couple of times a show, they incorporated it into sketches, and so on. And they were the only sponsor. I'm not going to mention the cereal's name because I am kind of annoyed at how often they plugged the cereal. I get it, I get it, you are paying money to get your name put on the show but could you just lay off just a little? Anybody with an IQ above 4 has got it already by the second commercial and probably won't be able to think about anything else all day as it is!

But what do I know. Maybe people in 1951 had goldfish memories and couldn't remember brand names for more than 30 seconds. On the other hand, they may have been people just like us.

Anyhow, there was a sketch where Mr. Borge asked us what had happened to the good old days. I had been under the misapprehension that 1951 WAS the good old days, but of course the problem with that is that this was said in 1951 and the good old days are never now. They were always then.

But to be honest, I'm not sure they were ever then, either. I mean, Borge suggested they might have been "20 years ago" which would have put them in the 1930s, which seems like strange times to be good, considering there was a major depression and was soon to be a major war. If anything could make a person wonder whether the idea of a "good old" anything was just a trick of the nostalgic imagination, that might be it. I've mentioned before my own good old era, the halcyon childhood when, in return for not having to pay bills, there was the threat of immanent nuclear war; and terrorism, and starvation, and genocide abroad. Other than that, perfectly lovely time to be alive. Not a care in the world.

I know I'll never get anywhere with this, but I do sometimes try to get people to examine their myths. And there are good reasons for that.

As a musician, I am supposed to hold with the idea that there was a time, in the middle of the last century, when people were much more educated about classical music then they are now, that they were friendlier to it, knew more about it, and valued it more highly. But I've seen a glimpse of the 1950s and, if they weren't there, I don't knew where they'd be. Certainly not in the 60s.

Borge wasn't Leonard Bernstein, of course, and didn't try to be. All the same, he didn't ask very much from his audience. He'd occasionally play a very shortened version of a famous piano concerto movement, or a solo piece. But sometimes several shows would go by without much musical content at all. And many of his jokes were more attitude than music. A few times he would imitate Shostakovich (still alive at the time) by smashing piano clusters like a four year old and declaring he'd come back when the composer got sober. He wanted us to know that this Russian didn't know how to write melodies, either. This was the height of the cold war, so it was easier to have fun by completely misrepresenting a living composer (anybody who has actually heard Shostakovich knows he could be very melodic; also that he was pretty much on our side when it came to Stalin, too, and was even being used for anti-Soviet propaganda by us. Would that have been too complicated? Why not at least pick another Soviet composer to make drunk jokes about?).

The self-congratulatory comedy didn't stop there; it had me wondering if this is what people thought was so educational. Instead of really teaching a little bit about music here and there (which you can still do in a comedy show and get away with it) you got a few of the famous pieces everybody knew, a few reinforced stereotypes about music and musicians;  in short, the kind of thing designed to make the audience feel good about what they thought they already knew rather than curious to know more.

All of this could be depressing, finding out that the good old days weren't so musically extraordinary as people have been making out. On the other hand, many of us go through the latter part of our lives disappointed and angry at a world that never seems to measure up to the way we thought things were.

Finding out that they never were that way can change our perspective a little.  I could unburden us.

I will say that Borge was still his affable self, and that was a pleasure to watch. I would argue that, while you could certainly point out that today there wouldn't even be a show that featured a classical pianist, I don't know that having one who has to dance around the opportunity to play real music and really talk about it, except very tangentially for a very limited amount of time is much of an advance on today. Also, Borge's show only lasted six months, so apparently the public patience for even that smattering of musical "culture" was limited.

Friday, September 21, 2018


It is said that people who can play Steinways can't afford Steinways. And vice versa.

I got my Yamaha from a woman who was making room for her new 160 thousand dollar Bosendorfer so people could play it at her parties. She did not want to be soiled with a 20 thousand dollar piano for the background music her hired pianists would play for her guests to talk over. She didn't play herself, of course. Perish the thought!

Persons who play other instruments occasionally have this problem as well. The great violinists of the world never own their instrument. Even though they make a good living, it is not enough to lay out several million dollars for a Stradivarius. So they get it loaned to them by a foundation.

The rest of us bozos get by on loaned instruments as well. I have a piano at home which is not concert worthy, but it helps me practice. I can't make good recordings on it, though. Most of the things you hear on pianonoise were made on Steinways that I had regular access to for some reason, such as having a position at a church, or for a recital.

Which is why, after some bit of exile, I should be in the driver's seat again. I am teaching a course about Mozart next month and wanted to finally get around to recording some of the sonatas, only to bump up against the latest hurdle: the piano is out of tune.

I don't mean just a little bit, either. I'm talking "church basement" out of tune.

Most churches in Pittsburgh have a piano, but only as an afterthought. Nobody plays it. We are an organ only town. And while Third Presbyterian has a nice Steinway model A which dates to 1929 (good year!) it is not particularly good at holding its tune.

We've been working on that in the year since I arrived. The massive fluctuations of temperature and humidity in a very large, non-airconditioned sanctuary in the middle of a humid, river-bounded town have to be contained. We've added a cover for the piano. We are set to install a damp chaser under the piano to keep the sound board at a consistent humidity--when the technician gets to it. Then, in a few weeks, he'll tune the piano, once the instrument has made the adjustment.

I got tired of waiting. One day, seated at the organ, I committed sacrilege by playing one of the Mozart sonatas on the organ. Then another. Then another. After a quarter century I can still remember large chunks of them without the score. I decided I liked the sound. After all, it may be an Allen, but it has a very large sound library of famous organ builder-generated sounds, and the charm of some of the registrations I was coming up with seemed to justify the experiment. So I recorded a few. I haven't had a chance to post any yet because I am in the middle of a busy week, so you'll get to hear them later.

They're not historically authentic, of course. Mozart didn't have a large, English cathedral style organ, or a French Cavaille Coll with hundreds of stops. And he did specify piano for these pieces.

But I think this may be sweet revenge for the organ. After all, Mozart was a great publicity man: he said that, to his "eyes and ears, the organ is the king of instruments." We organists like to trot out that quote every so often. But he didn't actually write anything for solo organ. Not a thing.

So maybe this is justice. It is a bit odd for a pianist to play an organ transcription of something he could just as well play on a piano, though. It is one thing when a beleaguered bassoonist steals something written for the violin in order to have some good literature to play on his neglected instrument.

The organ versions of these pieces do provide an interesting way to listen, however. Any great piece of music has many layers. Sometimes the best way to uncover some of them is to alter the medium. It causes us to hear differently. This doesn't mean I'm playing them the right way. There isn't a right way.

Arthur Schnabel said he wanted to play pieces that were impossible to play as well as they were written.

Anyhow, I've had to deal with some lemons in my career as a pianist and this week I found an unusual way to make some lemonade. I didn't squeeze all the juice out of the sonatas: you never can. But It yielded some intriguing results.

Apparently somebody else complained about the piano this week from an outside group, so we are having it tuned today. Maybe I acted impatiently. Good thing.

As always, is up with new recordings an articles if you want to explore the world of music.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Too many cooks

I end up playing father-confessor after concerts a lot.

"You know, I used to play the piano, but I quit. I wish I were still playing."

I don't happen to think this is actually true; much of this is just a polite attempt to have something to say, to forge a connection. Which, I suppose, is revealing.

It isn't that the speaker doesn't occasionally wish they could play the piano; probably they don't think about it that often, except in moments like these, but there is probably some genuine regret in not being able to play.  The idea of just being able to sit down and toss something off after a long day probably holds a grass-is-greener romanticism, but if a magic diva descended from Altissimus and instantly granted the ability to play like Horowitz, many of these folks would probably still only touch the piano once a year. Or so. I know because I've heard stories like that (without the magic diva).

Being able to play the piano is different from actually playing the piano. Being able to play is basically to display your credentials. This is what drives human beings. Showing your stuff.

The other week after a wedding when that young man came up to us and mentioned that he played the piano (self-taught) and the pastor said he could use the piano, I knew exactly what he was going to play, because it is the same as 11-year old self-taught boys everywhere. The first nine notes of Beethoven's Fur Elise and the first four measures of the Moonlight Sonata. Somehow it has become known in the pipeline that being able to play those pieces shows a high level of accomplishment. And they are conveniently possible to learn without reading music. And short. You leave off before the piece gets hard. Nobody wants to hear the rest anyway. You've made your point. You can play. That's the logic as I understand it.

The point being that you are important because look what you can do! Because everybody goes gaga over the pianist with the fast fingers and the playing from memory and don't we all want to be the center of attention?

This harsh analysis of human motives would explain why few people are likely to take up my challenge.

When people express regret at not being able to play I tell them that musicians like myself need people like them to come to concerts because otherwise we'd all be playing to empty rooms. Listeners are important. They support us. And music is about more than executing it anyhow. It needs to be understood, and enjoyed, and encouraged. It is a skill to be cultivated by listening and supporting. And it is important. It is vital.

This is an uphill battle. You can't sit down and prove to everybody in the room in a few seconds that you know how to listen to sonata form. Or that you can appreciate national dance forms in the music of Bach. Those things will make you a better listener, which will make your own experiences more enjoyable, and cause you to patronize artists who are setting the bar higher. But they don't, apparently, give you the power to command attention. Not the obvious kind.

Power is a strange thing. I recently came across my essay on Mendelssohn, which I'm going to post on next month. Mendelssohn's dilemma, according to one biographer, was that he needed to please his father by overtaxing himself as a conductor and neglecting his own needs as a composer. His father didn't think much of composing, but waving a stick around and getting people to do what you say every moment, now, that is impressive! It is true that, in the main, people regard performers much more highly than composers. When persons like Mozart did both, they got much more respect for their performances than for their compositions.

But if you think about it, you realize that an entire symphony orchestra may be watching one person's stick change direction, but everybody, including the conductor, is following the marks on the page, and doing what the composer said to do. The composer may not be visible or in the room at all. They may have been dead for centuries. But they are the one causing everybody to do what they are doing. Even the conductor. The one front and center getting all the attention. Odd, isn't it?

Everybody has a role to play. Some of those roles are quite visible. But they shouldn't be confused with being the most significant roles, necessarily, and certainly not the only ones. Patrons of the arts come to mind. People who fund the symphony and the arts organizations. People who will not only tolerate Schubert, they will be moved by him. In a small audience after a lot of preparation and a great performance by a hard working pianist, that person who is able to ask an eager question, show appreciation for the music itself and not just the flying digits, let the performer know that they did more than impress the audience with pretty sounds for a few minutes and then overstay their welcome, but forged a real connection through art.

So if you used to play the piano and quit, you can feel like a failure if you want to. I can't control that. But not everybody was made to play the piano. I played T-ball one year and stopped after that, and I don't go up to major league ballplayers and tell them that I used to play and I quit and I'm really sorry I did. I don't feel it necessary. It takes all kinds. And the folks who don't play the piano any more can still do something that many people who do play aren't able to do. Really get into the music. Really understand the music. Realize it isn't just about showing off your fingers or your resume, or playing fast and loud in order to impress. Go to concerts. Support musicians. Love what you are hearing. Probe, be curious. Learn.

Be alive!

Friday, September 7, 2018

No Pressure

The interwebs is a fun place. Some people last week were excitedly proclaiming it was now officially AUTUMN and therefore time for SPICED LATTES! Others, more dour, and thus, better informed, were trying SUBTLY to remind the first group that it was currently 90 degrees in the shade and that maybe they were being a tad premature. Which is what Americans do best anyway. We're first in everything. Especially when it comes to being six weeks early.

In the real world, the coming of the great September is not always a cause for celebration. Many new things have begun with a bang. A friend of mine who teaches both high school and college said he felt like he'd been drinking out of a fire hose all week. Deadlines start to come faster and more furiouser. I'd clean that last sentence up but there is no time.

I have a piano recital to give this afternoon, at the end of a week when I was preparing for two Sundays: our grand return to the sanctuary, and thus the large organ, or, if it is too hot, and the pastor decides we'd better adjourn to the social hall. Preparing for both possibilities meant having two preludes ready and figuring out who to get some of those anthems and whatnot to work on the piano.

Meanwhile, there is another concert in two weeks, with a different piece to relearn, and another full recital on the organ which isn't for a couple of months but needs to be prepared now. Also I'm teaching a class in a month, but the deadline for pitching the one that comes next semester is this week so that proposal will have to come first. And I'm trying to finish up a composing project while I still can which is pretty much not anymore. I'm out of time. Now!

There seem to be only two speeds in American life: busy and ridiculous. Busy is the one where we aren't all that busy but we don't want people to think we're communists or something so when people ask how we are we grin our best weary grin and say "busy" and they commiserate with us. The other form occurs typically near the beginnings of semesters, and at the end of them. Although in grad school I noticed that once things took off with a lurch they stayed at that level of intensity except they kept escalating through the end of the year.  It usually took about a month of summer to remember what it felt like to be human.

I'm not ready for that spiced latte yet, but I am looking forward to it. Metaphorically, of course (I'm not that into pumpkins). Despite all the hubbub, somehow autumn is still my favorite season of the year. Must be the weather. It's never in a hurry. This week they finally rolled out the weather we were supposed to get the last half of July.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Driving in Pittsburgh

If you are stuck for a conversation starter with people who are visiting Pittsburgh, one tried and true approach is to complain about the driving. The folks visiting our sanctuary last week were glad to know that it wasn't just them that were having trouble.

Pittsburgh is notoriously hard to drive in. The folks with the automated cars noticed that and decided that if their cars could make it here they could make it anywhere. They didn't ask if it would add to our stress levels. They just did it. For nearly two years those satellite-dish-adorned cars have had the run of the place, and only managed to kill one pedestrian that I know of.

The hills are part of the problem, of course, but the age of the city has to be part of it, too. There are roads that go practically straight up--or down, jutting off at funny angles from the main roads. In most cities, the large roads don't have stop signs, but here, they often do. If they didn't, some people would never get to work.

It is rare to find a four-way intersection with perpendicularly oriented streets. Usually there are an assortment of left and right turns at various acute and oblique angles, which can make using GPS an adventure. Sometimes it will advise you to take a "slight right" but that rarely covers all the options. There are usually at least two roads that could qualify.

There are a multitude of intersections that seem like they could have been designed by a third grader. Sometimes two roads decide they like each other enough to have a sort of a rendezvous which does not qualify as an intersection, but isn't exactly a merger, as the two roads eventually part company again, usually involving hills and oblique angles.

I was discussing this all with a friend last night and he opined that you would have to ask yourself before driving "do you feel lucky" to which I responded "you have to feel lucky or you'd never leave the house!" He laughed.

But something interesting has developed among the drivers of Pittsburgh. Though there are occasional honks of impatience, there also seems to be an unusual degree of empathy and general maturity. I was stuck in traffic for 15 minutes because a truck, going down a hill in reverse, had impaled itself on the steep angular streetbed below, and not one driver honked even once. Something that is also common to Pittsburgh is how marvelously often another driver will wave a person from a side street or parking lot in front of them; otherwise, between the speed on the oncoming traffic and the habitually horrid sight angles, you'd never get in. Pittsburgh drivers do this because they all know that it is impossible to drive here; we are all in the same boat, and if we do it for other people, it creates a culture in which they'll all do it for us. Here, the Golden Rule isn't just a nice maxim to live by, it is a survival skill.

Then, of course, there is the Pittsburgh left. The way this works is that a person making a left turn does it in front of the oncoming traffic before they have a chance to go, rather than yielding and waiting his turn. This works at certain intersections because the streets are narrow and, in order to accommodate transit vehicles, the white lines at which you have to stop may be 40 feet away from the white lines across the intersection. Neolithic drivers must have reasoned that they could make a left and be well on their way before it was a concern of anybody else. They are usually right. However, I did see one unfortunate driver nearly get his clock cleaned trying to do this maneuver in front of impatient traffic. I have been lefted on a few times; I've been counting, and in the two years I've lived here I've made six of them myself. But you have to know when to do so. I don't think my insurer has a category for "Pittsburgh left" that gets anyone off the hook in case of an accident.

If you are traveling to Pittsburgh these are things to know. This is not new knowledge. At the top of the Duquesne Incline is displayed a column written by famous WWII correspondent Ernie Pyle before the war in which he lamented the difficulties of driving here. Things haven't gotten any better. The roads in the winter can be awful: last year we had chuck holes deep enough and wide enough to have their own zip codes. The city brought out what I assume were a herd of asphalt shitting cows to graze around the holes and produce chaotic piles of black tarry stones which were soon strewn all over everyone's cars and the rest of the city, opening the holes again a couple of days later. The following summer they came with the real equipment and managed to lay a brand spanking new surface in just a few days.

Those wishing to learn compassion and non-attachment can either travel to the Himalayas and learn it from the wise monks on the high mountains, or you can save some travel time and expense if you live in the United States by coming to Pittsburgh and bringing your car. Sometimes the best lessons in life can be had for only $3.69 a gallon.

Friday, August 24, 2018

The Students are Back

Sometime last year I received an email from someone in a school system in California. Would I grant permission to use a page on my site for part of their curriculum. Cool, I thought. No problem, I said.

During the following semester traffic to that page went up considerably as students did their homework. It was often amusing to see exactly when. Sometimes the highest concentrations were on Sunday nights. Or very early in the morning (Pacific Coast Time).

These kinds of requests come in from time to time. I suspect more frequently students doing homework find a page on my site without an official mandate. This is because usership tends to go up during school hours and on weekdays and be down on evenings and weekends.

I know this because I can check things like the number of users and their general location in what are called "user analytics" which is an obsession with businesses with websites. If you are in that world there are about a thousand ways to examine and reexamine the data collected.

I should mention, however, that I can only get a very general notion of who is using the site. Whenever I bring up the subject of analytics some people get spooked because they think Big Brother is watching them and I am Big Brother. I can't see into your living room, and I don't know your name. If, however, you happen to go to, say, the University of Someplace Really Cool, and you log on from a computer which is attached to a network that is labelled as "univ of SRC" I can tell that somebody yesterday logged on from that network. So I will have an idea of where students are from. On the other hand, if you logged in from home, your network will probably only tell me that somebody logged on who uses "Comcast" or it will spit out a string of numbers, so that won't be very enlightening.

Incidentally, a few weeks ago, I noticed somebody had been on the site from "US House of Representatives." I have no idea who or why or what they did or did not find interesting. I hope they weren't trying to build a case to cut more funding to the arts!

While we're on the subject, did you know that the average taxpayer spends less than a quarter per year on all the government arts programs combined? I don't mean 25%, I mean that shiny disc thing you have in your pocket with Washington's head on it. So while it may be popular to talk about cutting the PBS budget during Republican Congresses, just remember we are talking about literally pocket change. It's not going to balance the budget, even if you hate the arts. But it will diminish the quality of life for the rest of us.

Right now there may be dozens of school children cursing me under their breath because they don't like homework and they couldn't care less about the Greek modes. Maybe they'll thank me later; probably they won't give it a second thought. I hope a few of them learn something and better still learn how to learn, how to think, how to explore, how to live a life with the arts in it.

At any rate, traffic is up this week, which happens to be the first week back to school for lots of schools in North America. I haven't noticed any particular location or network hogging all the bandwidth; it seems to be spread throughout. But anytime there is a sudden five-fold increase in a page that has gotten a handful of daily users throughout the summer you have to wonder. It's nice to have the students back.

By the way, I also had three users from Finland yesterday. Howdy, folks!

don't forget to check out this week's homepage at!

Friday, August 17, 2018

Getting Through

Whenever I give a concert for regular folks I get the same pieces of advice: play a variety, keep it short, play stuff they know and like. Also, play Phantom of the Opera.

This can be a little disconcerting if you are a classical pianist, but over the years I've developed several ways to make even some pretty heavy repertoire go down favorably. I've found you don't have to pander in order to be successful. Which is a good thing, since I'd like to do more than scratch the same limited musical itches all the time. But I do understand people's fears that I might tie people to chairs and make them listen to the complete works of Beethoven and that it might be long and boring. I get it.

A couple of months ago I signed up with a group called Musicians with a Mission which goes into area Assisted Living communities and plays concerts. I was told by its founder what types of programs they like, and of course, it was light, short, and for every heavy piece on the program, I should play at least three that were short, happy, and hummable. The all-Bach program someone had present recently hadn't gone down very well.

I took that advice and prepared a program which consisted mostly of short pieces, some classical, a couple of my own vintage and some ragtime. I tied it together with a theme, talked to them about each piece before I played it, and they told me they loved it and wanted me to come back soon.

I blithely assumed that I would be playing the same program at several other facilities over the summer and into the fall, but for some reason after only two iterations of the same program I got scheduled in the same place, for which I needed a new program. Being immersed in several other projects at the time I had to hurriedly assemble the new program, and for various reasons, it ended up being entirely classical, with two complete piano sonatas, and generally heavier than I would have wanted. I called it "Storms" (that last had been "A Concert about the Weather" by way of introduction, the weather being something you talk about when you are first getting to know someone)--it was called "Storms" and included some emotionally darker music than the last program.

Although I worried that this would not go down very well, I did the usual things to seem approachable. Talking between pieces, explaining the program idea and some things to listen for in each piece, often with some humor. And they loved it.

In fact, I think it was a bigger hit than the first time. One lady said something to the effect that she had been moved in ways she wasn't used to. The way they expressed their gratitude generally said that they had been emotionally touched by what I played. It was more substantive than they were probably used to, and it was quite welcome.

I'm sure it helped that I didn't just sit down and play, although several comments focused on the quality of my playing as well, suggesting that good art doesn't bother folks as much as is generally believed. But the artist's job is to communicate what it is to be human, and to share the heights and depths of our shared experience. It is a lofty goal, and it is not to be ignored except at our peril. We may think we'd all rather have musical cake and cookies, but if you don't mix in some vegetables from time to time, the soul starves or gets diabetes!

I'll probably go a bit lighter next time, but the risk and the reward of really saying something important will always be with me, thanks to my friends Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Schubert. And to the human experience.
don't forget to check out this week's edition of It starts off with a lighthearted recording of Debussy which makes fun of overly serious composers, like in the cartoon above of Wagner trying to stuff notes into the poor concert goer's ear with a hammer!

Friday, August 10, 2018

On a deadline

I don't usually put off writing the blog until the last minute. It's an uncomfortable feeling when I do. Some people need the shot of adrenaline this gives them, but I'm not such a fan. I'd rather plan ahead.

Somebody asked me the other day if I just played the piano for fun. Having found out that I am a professional musician it occurred to her to wonder whether I ever approached the instrument the way an amateur would, simply to derive enjoyment from the playing and not care if and when the piece was ready for prime time--perhaps not even to get that worked up over mistakes that would not be cited in the paper.

My answer? sort of. Then I elaborated.

I tend to enjoy what I do generally. Practicing, in various situations and at particular stages of preparation, can be fun. Other times it is difficult (especially when a piece is new). Chiseling away at a piece that is nearly ready to go to make it better is actually fun for me; it might not be for amateurs. But nearly always, the deadline looms.

I rarely play something just because I feel like it. There is usually a reason, and that reason is a public performance, and that means I've got a schedule, and a deadline, and pressure to get it right. That would seem to cut back on the fun quotient. But it doesn't entirely. It does ration it a little.

And even then, many of my selections are voluntary. Tomorrow I have a piano recital. I chose the program. Next day, there is a church service. I got to select the prelude and offertory. Next weekend I have a wedding. They aren't being very particular, so I'm playing stuff I already know and enjoy. In the fall so far are three organ performances. One is a joint recital (a single piece will suffice), one is an open house (so virtual background music), and one is a full recital. All of them with selections determined by me. I'm also teaching a class at the same time (on a subject I pitched to the administration), and will be getting ready for Christmas (whatever that means, TBD!). Those are the deadlines. As I mentioned, deadlines take some of the joy away. So I try to prepare as much as I can as soon as I can so that when the performances draw near it isn't any big deal.

Over the years I've experimented with pressure, and with the lengths of projects. I've attempted to set ridiculous deadlines for myself to see if I could meet them. I've tried to balance several projects at once, some long term and some medium and short term. And I've tried to make friends with the deadlines. They do, after all, give an outline to our efforts. If left completely to playing whatever whenever, I might not develop anything. Perhaps I would sit down and play something different each day, not caring if anything ever got good. And then you'd never hear any of it. Which doesn't work for me.

Sharing music with others presupposes two things: nerves, and a deadlines. That's the way it is. Maybe for some people that wrecks the fun. For me it disciplines it, and serves a higher purpose. And, to mangle Nietzsche, whatever deadline doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

For what it's worth, I banged this entry out in 20 minutes. That's probably a new record.

Back to practicing for tomorrow.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Rosie's not riveted

Our new feline, Rosamunda, has graced our domecile for nearly two-and-a-half months. She's very entertaining, friendly, quiet, and has a wonderful purr. The trouble is her musical taste is suspect.

You may find this a trifle, but since one of her humans is a musician this is at least bound to cause some friction. It could be worse, though.

A teacher of mine in college had two dogs that would howl whenever they heard the sound of a piano. I dog sat for him one week and if you wanted to practice you had to lock the dogs in an upstairs bedroom and turn the radio on loudly to a country music station (no pianos). When you returned a couple hours later the dogs were hanging out listening to country. It was surrealistically amusing.

Rosie doesn't whine when I play the piano. In fact, she seems to tolerate it rather well. But she's no fan of the organ. I can tell because, whenever I play a recording of the instrument she leaves the room immediately.  There are at least modifications that can be tried. For a start, I don't have an organ at home, so, being recordings, I could spare her suspect ears by using headphones. Also, the organ is a variable instrument, with a wide sound palette. As a result of experimentation I've determined that it is only the rich, full organ sound that she dislikes. That means it is likely the sharp, high-pitched mixture stops that are bothering her. Some humans have trouble with these stops also, particularly if they are older and losing their hearing. The year I was recovering from chemotherapy I was having trouble with them myself.

My former feline, Erasmus, used to find the organ fascinating. Whenever I played a recording he would press his ear to the speakers, and whenever I played a particular piece, he would mew whenever I got to a particular note. Only that one evoked a response. I'm not quite sure if he was saying "bravo!" or "turn that off!"

The only thing he didn't care for was repetition. If he came in to the room while I was practicing he might stay for a while, but the instant I got back around to something he'd heard before, namely the passage I was on when he walked in, he left immediately. He was not into encores. Otherwise, save the time he was under the piano and got caught off guard by a bass entrance during a fugue, he and instrument were at least functional acquaintances. It's the same way with Rosie and the piano.

Some of my human listeners must feel the same way, which is unfortunate for the organ. Usually when someone doesn't like something they don't stick around long enough to risk their mind being changed, either. Oh well. At least I'm diversified.

Since this week's headline recording at features the organ (without those offensive mixtures) I thought I'd try it out on Rosie, who was sitting on my lap. She stuck around for the whole thing. Maybe you will too.

this week on the homepage of, we settle the superiority of the piano versus the organ once and for all. And achieve world peace.

Friday, July 27, 2018


Cleveland columnist Dick Feagler passed away a few weeks ago. I grew up in the Cleveland area and enjoyed reading his columns. Feagler had a gift for painting in words a picture of the town he loved back in the "good old days" that could leave you nostalgic for a place you had never known, which is a hallmark of true artists.

Under Feagler's spell you could feel a warmth for people you hadn't met, come to understand what was in the minds of all the people around their dinner tables nodding their heads in agreement with his 'unsolicited opinions' and generally feel like people were decent, or at least tried to be, and that life was good, out there in the parts you'd never seen. The down side to all of this romanticizing was that Feagler himself later said that while he could make sense of the world of the past, he didn't understand the one he was living in now. Too much change. He had succumbed to one of the most popular myths of humanity, that things are always getting worse, and that the things you knew growing up were always the best. It's the life you were living while young, and that confidence of youth apparently is what makes up for pollution and the imminent threat of thermonuclear war in making the landscape of the past seem so much better than what we have now. I can remember going to bed wondering whether I'd wake up in the morning or if we'd all be incinerated and yet it still seems like a simpler time largely because I didn't have to pay my own bills.

Some of Feagler's columns were collected in books late in his career. I have them. The prefaces are interesting. In one of them he writes about how he got started. These origin stories usually involve a lot of happenstance, and this is no exception. A reporter who often let go of his opinions in print, he was given a column to dispense them regularly on page two. It was, he wrote, not a glamorous bit of real estate, being the part folks usually "skipped on their brisk journey from page one to the interior of the paper." Just to the left of Feagler's own preface is an introduction by his editors which is more laudatory. They frame page two as "the place given to the star." I'll bet most readers are much more inclined to this version of events, even though they may both be right--the cache of page two probably went up as their columnist's reputation slowly rose.

If there is any false modesty in Feagler's remarks it is probably a defense mechanism. Uncritical praise can be just as dangerous to a creator as ignorant criticism. In the strange contract a writer has with the public it is safe to display this armor of modesty without fear of damaging your reputation because nobody is going to buy it for a second no matter how true it is. But in Feagler's world he'd probably gotten used to plugging away without thinking of Pulitzers because that was how you deal with the constant stream of irate readers who don't share your opinion, editors who think of you as a fungible commodity that helps sell papers, and constant deadlines.

It was those deadlines that got to him first. "Armed with one firm opinion a month," he says, "we [columnists] grind out three columns a week." Given leave to write about anything, he soon realized he had nothing to write about. And then he wrote about it anyway. "And that, dear reader, is why you are holding this book. I forced myself to write columns whether I had anything to write about or not."

Inspiration is a strange thing. It tends to visit those most often who keep working whether they've gotten her visions or not. It tends to reward those who learn to master their medium with hammer and chisel in the mines of constancy so that by way of the magic rhythm of words and sentences, something is worth reading even when its substance is at best gossamer. It teaches you to write about the weather so that someone will want to read it.

And then, when inspiration strikes, you have something to say, and you know how to say it. Otherwise, if you wait for the muse before you've prepared her welcome on a steady current of words, she may not come at all.

don't forget to check out the articles and recordings this week on the website proper,

Friday, July 20, 2018

The Salieri Syndrome

Poor Antonio. He gets to be the poster child for also-rans everywhere. And blamed for a crime he did not commit, to boot.

We save a special scorn for the losers of the championship games. The ones who never got there in the first place, or who can't manage to win as many games as they lose, we don't concern ourselves with. But we want to make sure the ones who challenge for the title feel our wrath, even if we have to torch Icaraus' wings ourselves.

And we have to have winners. My favorite example in this regard is the uproar over baseball's All-Star game several years ago in which a meaningless mid-season exhibition game ended in an extra-innings tie because both sides ran out of pitchers. How dare we not have a winner and a loser! Just because there are 162 games a year in which ties are not permitted and an expanded playoff so that mediocre teams can topple the ones who really earned it is no reason to think Americans can get to sleep after a game that denied half of them their bragging rights!

Knowing who won the game is an important shorthand. It allows an athletic contest to be summed up succinctly around the office in the morning. It permits causal conversation between those who know something about the game and those who know next to nothing.  It allows you not to pay much attention to the details, have the game on in the background, note that some people are throwing a ball around, and move on . Or you can get very passionate about all the statistics and argue about a player's worth. Either way, the winning settles everything nicely. It isn't debatable. Somebody won the game and it is easy to know who. The smaller group who pays close attention knows who and so can the much larger group that doesn't care about the game nearly as much. If you want something to catch on you have to appeal to both groups.

The arts have never solved this problem. If you don't know much about the arts you probably aren't interested in going to a concert or a museum. For the more adventurous there are plethoras of program notes and books and plaques on the museum wall. They can be very interesting--or not. There are certainly plenty or people trying to communicate what they know and love about what is itself a fascinating form or communication. But they can't tell you who won. They can tell you who the important figures are, and they are, after all, history's winners. But in, say, classical music, we don't have head to head contests.

Well, except for one. Thanks to a movie, everybody knows Mozart beat Salieri by a mile, and Salieri got really sore about it and bumped Mozart off. It doesn't have to be history. It fills a need to know who won.

It is quite possible that most folks wouldn't be able to tell the difference between Mozart's music and Salieri's. The internet right now is filled with defenses of the man's music, saying he got a bad rap from the movie, that he is really a genius. This overstates the case a little. Having heard some Salieri myself, I think it is fair to say the man knew how to compose and it should be recognized that he was highly regarded in his day, and with good reason. But there is an obvious qualitative difference when it comes to Mozart.

The people of Mozart's time and place complained that his music was too complicated, just as they did about every other composer history remembers. It took some getting used to, and it doesn't have the kind of predictable repetition that allows you to hum along on first hearing, nor does a single melody reign supreme without dialogue from the supporting cast. In the end, though, somebody figured out that Mozart's music had something in it that humankind would want to keep around. That small group of devotees, the ones whose ears could tell them something the rest couldn't hear, somehow got their way. Now he is everywhere, and the bulk of humanity, most of whom really don't care that much, know at least this--Mozart is champion. He won the title. Suck it, you losers.

The reason they know it is partially by that same mysterious process through which they knew Bach, and Beethoven. Those passionate scholars spread the word, and over the decades, stars were born. But Mozart got an extra bonus. He got a playoff game in the public imagination in which he beat Antonio Salieri. Think that isn't important? Nearly everybody I've talked to knows that the movie isn't really history, and that Salieri probably didn't poison Mozart. And then in the next words out of their mouths they demonstrate that what they think they know is precisely what was in the movie. Why wouldn't it be? What else does the public know about Mozart? Are Mozart biographies flying off the shelves?

Salieri, I thank you. You are helping to keep the Mozart industry alive and flourishing. Not by producing highly dedicated, informed, passionate Mozart lovers, but by keeping the name on everybody's lips. Those ordinary, semi-informed people have an important role to play. Just ask the NFL. I hope you will absolve us, not for being mediocrities, but for abusing you so. Most of us, if remembered at all, get used for something very different after our death than we stood for in life. History is written by the winners, after all. Anyway, you didn't have a bad run. And you were head opera composer for a while, and those Viennese had to blame somebody. So now your are a household word. It is a good thing the emperor liked your operas so much.

Otherwise we would all be fingering somebody like Leopold Kozeluch, whose name I can barely spell or pronounce. Or Padre Martini, whose name lacks that wonderful S that Murray Abraham used to such effect. Or Guiseppi Bonno, who sounds too affable to be guilty of murder. Or some other composer in Mozart's Vienna that had reason to dislike the little man with the brash temper. How about Domenico Cimerosa?

No, you were perfect. And what wasn't perfect got a makeover. And now some of us are actually listening to your music. I listened to your Requiem the other day, in fact.

Not a bad piece. And just the right number of notes, too.

This week on, Bach's little organ fugue, Haydn's a few measures short of a minuet, and the piano in disguise. You'll see what I mean on the homepage, updated every Friday.

Friday, July 13, 2018


One morning my wife was doing something at her computer and said across the room, "they're having a 5k here in town. Why don't you sign up?"

Five kilometers? Are you crazy? I've jogged to the mailbox and back on a rainy day, but...

How far is that in miles, anyhow?

You might get the impression from the foregoing that I was not a world class runner. Heck, why did I just use the past tense?

I decided to give it a try, and spent the last week of March and the month of April trying to get into shape. This was my killer regimen the first week: I would go to the park, which was about a mile. Since I couldn't keep up a run for more than 45 seconds without running out of breath, I would slow to a walk until I thought I could handle another short spurt of running. Run a little, walk a lot, run a little...

Later I found out that can be an actual technique for getting through long races. I don't use it. I run the whole time. But this is now. Back then I had a limited capacity and I also didn't want to have a heart attack.

I was in my late thirties and hadn't done any running as an adult. I didn't do a lot as a child either, because I was asthmatic. I was a fast little kid in short spurts, but those 600 yard dashes they had in elementary field day games--I bombed out on the first turn, wheezing like mad.

The typical thing for a person resolving to hit the gym in the new year is to work out really hard the first time and be really sore for a few days. I  didn't want to be that guy. I didn't push it very hard. It felt a little pathetic only going a short distance and breaking it into tiny little runs, but I reminded myself of an important lesson I'd learned in piano. You work a little every day, and eventually your capacity increases. You improve with time and continual effort. That's the secret: consistent work. It happened with the piano. Once I couldn't play chopsticks and several years later I was on stage with an orchestra playing a huge solo piece from memory. It didn't happen overnight.

By the third week I went to a different course. I had figured out that 5 kilometers was actually three miles, not two, which my vague concept of the metric system had led me to assume the first time (it's about half as many miles as kilometers, and go one direction or the other!). It was exactly one and a half miles from my house to the church where I worked. If I could run all the way there, touch the wall and come back in one straight run I'd have it.


That was me thinking how ridiculous it was to imagine running all that way in one fell swoop. They'd have to come along with a spatula and scoop me off the sidewalk!

Nevertheless, I tried running to church. I ran and walked, and once I got there I stopped to practice for a couple of hours. I was the organist, so it made sense. Then I'd run back home. One day I actually managed, for the first time, to leave the church running, and not slow to a walk all the way home.

That was a pretty good day. And the start of something bigger.

Friday, July 6, 2018

The Ives Festival

Last week our local classical station online feed didn't week for a couple of days. That meant I had to go elsewhere to listen to the radio before bed. I have a radio, but it makes an annoying buzzing sound with the headphones in and the connection is very sensitive and anyway---it just works better that way.

For some reason I thought I'd catch up with some Ives Symphonies. Charles Ives. It was practically the 4th of July anyhow, and what better way to be patriotic than to listen to an insurance salesman who wrote music on nights and weekends that people thought sounded awful. And he kept on writing it anyhow because, you know, individualism. Of a most rugged kind!

Actually, three of Ives' four numbered symphonies are pretty tame, tonally. They are plenty quirky, and two of them quote from a lot of hymn tunes and fiddle tunes and marches and things, but the man on the street wouldn't get TOO offended if I played him a few bars. Once in college a roommate heard me listening to the Ives Fourth and thought the guy was a nutcase. If you've never heard it imagine a sonic representation of a Jackson Pollack. The kind of art people think their six-year could create. I played him something from Ives' First, which is fairly conventional sounding and my roommate decided maybe the guy knew what he was doing after all. This is the way it is with abstract artists. They have to convince Joe Public they really could draw a straight line if they wanted to, and also a nice landscape.

Anyway, I spent four nights listening to the four numbered symphonies--a miniature Ives Festival. The first night I listened to Ives's Second. Bernstein was doing it. It was a vibrant interpretation, even if it featured a few kitchy bits. Bernstein couldn't quite get what Ives was up to even if he did have more insight into him than most of his contemporaries. This was particularly apparent the fourth night when I listened to the Third. This rendering was extremely metronomic. There was something about it that didn't breathe at all. The tempos all felt wrong: the first movement was too slow, the second was too fast, the third also too fast--but the real problem was that it didn't sound like nostalgia, it sounded like virtuosity and precision. I generally like Lenny, but he ruined my favorite Ives symphony.

Hunting around Youtube, though, you can find some interesting things. For a performance of Ives's First Symphony, I came across an orchestra in Russia. There wasn't any English translation so I don't know who exactly. But they managed to make Ives sound like Tchaikovsky.  The angst was palpable. The tempos were slow, and the aching melodies, which Ives wrote in college for an assignment, were quite profound. I don't know how they found a hugely depressed Russian in the writing of a teenaged American at Yale trying to pull his conservative teacher's leg, but they did--admirably. And they really sold it, too. I was impressed. I found myself ruminating on how Ives really had stolen bits of the Russian symphonist, along with Brahms, Dvorak, and the New England School. And how a translation of a translation doesn't always get you back to where you started, and how people can really misunderstand each other, culturally, but...this was really marvelous. And really wrong. But, hey, why not?

Maybe the most useful thing was when I found the premiere broadcast of the Fourth, conducted by Stokowsky and the American Symphony, complete with twenty minutes of interviews and shmoozing about the piece and how interesting and difficult it was to put everything together in rehearsal. Then I got to see them trying to deal with the gargantuan score, and watch three conductor simultaneously conduct parts of the orchestra at different tempi. Like Ives's music, there were several layers involved here: one was appreciating the way in which the people who put the program together were trying to reach a presumably wary, and uninitiate public.

Ives will probably never be loved as a composer, which is too bad. He did write some good tunes, besides all of the fascinating ways in which he put pre-existing tunes together. I still can't get the Second symphony out of my head, and that was several days ago. Ives was an interesting man, and his music makes me nostalgic for a part of America I never really knew--at least, not entirely. We have some of it in common, though. I grew up singing some of the tunes, in a small town, and watching the marching bands, organists, and other civic music makers. I probably have an inside track.--At least an appreciation for rurality that cosmopolitan orchestral conductors don't always seem to be able to get their heads around. And maybe a sense of humor that doesn't come naturally to them either.

But a "gifted primitive?" Please, Lenny!

as usual, there is more to enjoy this week at, including a recording of Gottschalk's "Union."

Friday, June 29, 2018

About the Alligator

For the past month, something reptilian has been nestled atop the homepage at I didn't want you to think he was a stock photograph. You need to know what kind of danger I put myself in to bring you this picture.

While the usual method of securing banner photos for pianonoise is to disperse our awesome staff around the world, capturing pianos and organs in the wild--sometimes even in the very act of giving concerts!--we occasionally deviate from this practice to include objects that are not music-making, and are more likely to make you their lunch.* Actually, this is the first time for that last bit.

Back in March, my wife and I spent a week in Florida. It didn't take long for the lack of snow and commutes to make her feel quite zen about the experience:

 The first day, we visited the aquarium, and saw all manner of fish and fowl native to the area, behind glass. The next day we went canoeing in a state park and saw the same creatures all around us. We were in the tank with them this time.

There was plenty of lovely flora and fauna, too, which was originally the point of the picture above, except that, on zooming in to observe her handiwork, my wife discovered a friendly reptile hiding himself among the lilies. This is the source photo for the banner at pianonoise this month, except that I've cropped it so you can more easily see our new buddy.

He'd brought along about five of his friends, too, who could be seen more obviously sunning themselves on both banks of the river. It was mid-afternoon, and none of them seemed interested in going for a swim. We didn't encourage them, and kept paddling. Just smile and keep on going, that's my motto.

(this fellow had gone missing on our return trip. He sends his regrets.)

Now that you are acquainted with my inner Steve Irwin, I'd just like to assure you that this month was an anomaly. Next month I have some man-eating skyscrapers from Pittsburgh to share with you, and in August, the beautiful organ from Heinz Chapel, where I played a concert in May. Of course, while you are gazing upon all of this death-defying photographical legederdemian, you can enjoy the articles, too.
*I have never heard of anyone being eaten by a piano. I'm not saying it has never happened, just that I've never heard of it. --ed.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Our new roommate

This is Rosie. She is the newest member of our family. On May 22 we found her at the Humane Society shelter. She was really scrawny, and had mange from fleas. She spent the first week in our basement, hiding behind boxes.

It had taken our former feline, Erasmus, a while to make the adjustment, so I mostly let her alone, except for an hour each afternoon when I would go downstairs and talk to her gently, reach my hand in and pet her a little. Then she would come out and we would be pals for a while until I left and she hid among the boxes again.

Rosie started spending time on my lap, but was still scared to go into the rest of the basement, as if I were a safe island she couldn't leave.

After a week and a half I got her to go upstairs with me. We have two floors, so it took about three days for her to get up the nerve to ascend the last staircase with me. I had to coax her a lot even though I know she spent the nights exploring the house. I think she was afraid we didn't want her upstairs. Also, when we were gone, dogs could come along, you know?

Eventually she started just hanging around the house. I would come home and she would come out of the upstairs closet (at least she's now hiding upstairs!) and recently she just lays in my chair when I'm not there. That's right; the chair wars have begun!

And she is behaving like a cat now. She attacks cords on the blinds, and things she finds on the floor. She even ate a fly last weekend that I couldn't manage to swat. I congratulated her. I hope it tasted ok. I chose not to eat the one I killed.

Now she even sleeps in our bed. When my wife came home for a late shift at the hospital, there was Rosie in her spot in bed.
I hope she's not jealous! Anyway, it seems to me what the internet needs these days are a few more photos of cute cats. So Rosie and I have done our best to meet the need. Thank you for hanging with us.

Remember to check out It's not all about cats. There are even articles about music, from an interesting variety of angles this week. Thanks.

Friday, June 15, 2018

As seen on Wikipedia

From time to time I do some checking into the sources of some of my web traffic and discover that it is being referred by wikipedia. Maybe you've heard of them. For the last decade they've been the new almighty online encyclopedia with all of the answers for people who want quick answers to things. Someday an entire generation will grow up without knowing that there were once actual books you could buy that were written by specialists in their fields and took years to assemble. Maybe they are already here.

Anybody can write, or edit, an entry in wikipedia. Anybody can decide they want to have a little fun and make something up out of their nether-regions and see if anybody else will notice and put it back the way it was. There is a risk to assuming the information you get is truly accurate. Surely you know this.

And if they are using me as one of their sources, well...the thing is, I am old enough that I still feel a certain obligation to accuracy before I post something that ostensibly the entire computer-owning world can see. Getting a footnote on a wikipedia article makes me feel like I probably ought to make a reasonable effort to get it right, so that they will also get it right. I don't know how many people get too worried about that anymore, but it still bothers me.

My site is now over 16 years old. I can't remember all of the sources I used, and I know that my research methods have improved over the years. I don't footnote anything because I'm trying to write for a lay audience, anyhow. I'm writing to be informative, yes, but largely to be entertaining. I've always assumed people who wanted in-depth information from specialists would be reading books on the subject instead of perusing a short internet article. My target audience is everybody, and I hope I can get the non-initiates interested in what I do, so I'm not going to go on for too long and get into too many weeds--usually. I didn't think, when I wrote most of these articles, that I'd be quoted in something that calls itself an encyclopedia. Suddenly I feel like I have to stand at attention.

When it comes to accuracy, though, there is no end of trouble. It turns out that a very large fraction of what I think I knew about music and musicians has at some point been called into question by somebody else. The more I learn the more I have to unlearn, or at least be skeptical about.

I'm doing some reading about Mozart this summer. There are any number of ideas about this man, legends that have grown up, stories that have been told, and many of them originated in the biographies of people who were not entertainers but musicologists. Some of them were even in positions to view their subject close up, or knew people who had. And yet, they often seem to created, or passed on, inaccurate information. Some of it may have been more gossip than evidence, and in some cases the sources for the material had pretty strong agendas of one sort and another.

It is easy to dismiss the supermarket tabloids as fiction, and to distinguish the out-and-out gossip and entertainment and hearsay as dubious, but when even the scholars are passing bad information it can get pretty difficult to know when you are on firm ground. Some people have even written books about the literature itself, tracing the growth of the legends, the likelihood that something would be true, the agendas of the writers, and the nature of the evidence. This can be fun reading, if you don't mind using your brain while you read.

For the rest of the world, though, it won't fly. We want short answers. We don't want probably and maybe and this guy had an agenda so who knows and I really wouldn't trust that fellow unless its Tuesday and the moon is full and why do you ask?

Anyhow, for the people doing their homework out there, your teacher is probably less interested in whether your facts are facts than if you adhered to all of the proper punctuation, number of words, stylistic and formal guidelines, and so forth. Mine always were. For the rest of you, this website is an ongoing adventure. Like its author it is a work in progress. Don't assume more than you have to. Contents are subject to change. The facts and the opinions. I know that is small comfort to some of you. But to the rest of us, it's part of the adventure.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Dissatisfaction theory

I play a pipe organ with four manuals and a hundred stop knobs. Lately, I've started to become unhappy with it.

Oh, boo hoo, you in normalville are pouting at your computer. So sad; here's the world's smallest pipe organ to play a sad song for you. This is partly because if you ask for sympathy for anything whatsoever on the internet it is a big mistake, and in the case of my present instrument, there is more organ than most people get to play with. Confessing unhappiness under those circumstances is like a rich person complaining to a poor person that they don't have enough money.

And then I have to go and make it worse by telling you that I'm excited to be this unhappy.

There are two reasons for this perverse interpretation. One is that, despite the multitude of resources that are already present on the current instrument, there are over 5000 pipes in the rear gallery which are waiting to be restored. So when I realized rather uncomfortably the other day that there are way too many stops of the string variety on an organ that already has its own large floating string division, and generally only one 8 foot flute stop per manual, which seems kind of obscene for the Cathedralesque size of the organ, and is making getting the kind of rich but quiet sound I'm after for a piece I'm working on difficult, even after all possible coupling combinations have been exhausted--then, I look longingly at some of the other 75 stops that will be available some day, and realize that some of my problems will be solved.

Nobody can help me with my other problem, which is a constitution that most people will think is certifiably crazy, but I find to be the prelude to a period of discovery and growth. What I mean is this:

If I were tootling along, happy and comfortable with what I was able to get out of the organ already, I would continue doing what I'm doing. Since I'm not, I am asking questions, trying to find new and creative ways to use what I have available to get what I want. It does not surprise me in the least that I want more than I can get; my standards have gone up. Artist's standards always do. The last time I began really trying to maximize the potential of a pipe organ, I had custody of a much smaller organ. Over time, that organ began to sound better and better. At first I didn't think a lot of it, but as I began to probe the mysteries of organ registration, I managed, I think, to get a great deal out of 30 stop knobs. Eventually I could play virtually anything in the literature, and there are, I think, in the catalog on pianonoise, some really interesting examples of what you can get an organ to sound like--hundreds of sounds which are not your stereotypical full blast, and range from tender to comical. When I moved to Pittsburgh, some of the congregants at churches where I played told me that the organ had never sounded like that before. I think they meant that in a good sense.

Such a thorough knowledge of organ registration takes a lot of study, and careful attention. One fellow who is said to have achieved a superior knowledge of organ registration, and employed combinations of sounds that nobody else thought would work until they heard it is a guy named Bach. Maybe you've heard of him. I think, therefore, I'm in good company.

The path will be hazardous, of course, There are hundred of tutorials on basic organ registration (including my own), but when you start dealing, as I have recently, with different organs on which you are playing concerts, with very different personalities, and you are trying to make sense of the tonal philosophies of the people who designed those organs, you are in very different territory. One method is to simply spend time trying different combinations based on what I already know about how organ stops behave, and keep my ears open. The other is to read as much as I can about the art of organ registration from the library, and online, and to talk to knowledgeable organists and builders about the subject.

The point is, I am unhappy. Which means that something is brewing. Good things should result. Satisfactory things. Then....sigh...I'll just have to start all over. Happiness can be overrated.

Anyway, you can have some of mine if you were in search of some. I'm going off on an adventure.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Keep it together

My longtime choir director and friend from Illinois retired a couple of weeks ago. I was looking at some pictures on Facebook which reminded me of the trip I made in April and how I substituted at my old church. For the prelude I played one of her favorite organ pieces, Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Prelude on 'Rhosymedre.'" Afterwards, I looked up and saw her wiping her eyes in the choir loft. I note this was at the conclusion of the piece because the whole time I was playing I was keeping my head down, focusing on the music, and trying not to think about how she was probably crying in the choir loft. Performances can be challenging on their own merits, but when there is an emotionally charged situation it is particularly important to keep those emotions from getting in the way of what you have to do.

I recall other performances in such circumstances--playing at my brother's wedding. Or my grandmother's funeral. My grandmother had left cookies in her freezer which someone thawed so we could have grandma cookies at her own funeral. I didn't know that at the time. I just thought it was interesting that someone had made cookies that tasted remarkably like grandma's. I suppose it might have been nice to know that at the time. You can get emotional when you are eating a cookie. A performance is a different story.

Funerals can be a challenge. Usually you don't know the deceased that well, if at all, but once I recall playing the Widor Toccata for a fellow I was really going to miss. While some organists make enormous towers of music out of pieces like this so they can get all of it on the music rack and not have to turn a page (which you can't do because you never have a hand free), I generally play all but the first and last pages from memory. On that occasion I blinked and asked my wife to turn pages because I was afraid I'd have brain failure. It was one of the toughest times getting through the Toccata.

Another challenging Toccata was the service on Easter of 2016 when, unbeknownst to the congregation, a large tumor had been found in my chest and I was having trouble even breathing. I had spent the last few weeks still waiting for a diagnosis and imagining this might be my last Easter. It had even occurred to me to hit the record button on the console so the piece could be played at my own funeral, which might strike you as macabre, but I was hoping would be one last gift to the congregation. After Easter it turned out I had a "friendly" and "curable" kind of cancer, and while the aggressive chemo that followed was far from fun, I eventually played the Toccata again, two years later, in another city at another church. This time it was pretty easy, despite the euphoria of officially being resurrected.

Memories can accumulate and fellowship with one another: another memory of the choir loft at Illinois involves looking over during the second verse of "How Great Thou Art" after I had just added some birdsong to the line "and hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees" and seeing a soprano laughing. I kept right on playing, with a smile on my face.

Because there is a time to mourn, and a time!

And to be a little goofy.

don't forget to take time to read the homepage at And don't let that friendly beast atop the page this month scare you away. He's just a friend we met in Florida in March. He didn't move and we kept on paddling!

Friday, May 25, 2018

Hail, Cesar!

You may never have heard of him. If so, don't feel bad.

Cesar Cui, one of the "Mighty fistful" of Russian composers in the 19th century, is mostly known for his invective. He had a day job as an army officer (military engineer). The one place you are most likely to run into him is in the program notes at a concert in which Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto is being performed. The reason is that, prior to writing that work, Rachmaninoff had been in a depression for two years and hadn't written anything. This was caused by the disastrous premiere of his First Symphony.  Probably owing to a drunken conductor, the piece, which I've heard on recording and can testify is really pretty good, if not a masterpiece like his Second, went badly. Cesar Cui made a habit of writing strongly opinionated reviews in the newspaper. His famous line after that performance is that if there were a conservatory in hell, they would have given Rachmaninoff the prize, "so devilish are the discords he dishes up!"

Cui has had exactly a century to personally enter hell's composition competition, and doubtless is quite aware of the sort of discord its inhabitants prefer. He passed away in 1918. The world has not lacked for nasty music critics in the meantime, but it may be missing his unique musical voice.

If you were wondering what that voice was, I've got a recording for you. It is a very small piece Cui was commissioned to write for a magazine. I found it in an organ anthology which was edited by a person I've learned to find very annoying from previous experience. In this volume, the piece I wanted to play had been silently shortened by three lines, perhaps because the music got marginally harder there and the editor wanted to make it simple for amateurs. In any case, the piece did sound like it could have reasonably ended there; however, that is not what the composer had in mind, and it was not exactly ringing with integrity for the editor to chop out the ending without even telling us.

While I was looking over the collection I came across this little piece by Cesar Cui. I've never played anything of his and thought you and I might take a listen. I get the impression from some of the writing that Cui wasn't familiar with how the organ works (some chords that don't fit in the hands and/or feet and some balance problems). But aside from the general awkwardness is a nice, if melancholy, piece of music. It is just about the only thing he ever wrote for the organ (there might be one other piece, but now I can't remember).

While the rest of the world is celebrating Lenny's 100th birth year, there are some 1918 passings to take note of. This is one. We'll take the others in due time. Enjoy some Cui.

Cesar Cui: prelude in g minor

check out the homepage this week at Learn how musicians function on a busy schedule, and answer the important questions like: did Shostakovich play tennis? And it's your last chance to hear the organ recital from Heinz Chapel on Pianonoise Radio.