Wednesday, December 12, 2018


I could tell from the abruptness with which she stopped the choir and the expression on her face that somebody was in big trouble. I couldn't tell who or why because I was a little busy watching the score, listening to the choir, watching the conductor, and, of course, pushing all those plastic levers at the right time and with the proper degree of force. But we all stopped on a dime and waited to see who was getting the lecture.

It turned out to be three young men in the back who, while a small group of their colleagues were performing, took the opportunity to generally yuck it up, talking over and otherwise ignoring the live music at hand. This did not sit well with our conductor.

It shouldn't have. Afterwards, in conversation, I told her that she had certainly gotten the point across. And that it was completely necessary to do it. Because, sadly, there are a lot of people who have difficulty paying attention to anything they aren't involved in directly themselves. From the kindergartners who are so fascinated by the sounds coming out of their own mouths that they refuse to shut up and get in line so we can go to recess (this I recall was a recurring problem throughout elementary school and typically led to short recess periods), to the young adults who are similarly fascinated by everything they themselves think and feel and say and are sometimes blind and deaf to the world around them which, if they gave it a chance, might turn out to be more interesting than they are (O no! What will that do to my ego?!).

All this is simply a trait of human beings. But it includes musicians as well, and not just their public. Even the people making the music often seem to have little appreciation for listening to it if it is being produced by others. This suggests that there is a failure to communicate (sorry, cool hand Luke).

If I seem a little cranky today, let me channel a man by the name of Camille Saint-Saens who wrote a list of things that he said constituted people "who do not love music." One of those even included those who enjoy listening to Bach's C Major Prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier with the added melody by 19th century French composer Charles Gounod on top. You may not know what I'm talking about, but you've heard it at weddings. Saint-Saens thought Bach knew what he was doing and that the original should be left alone.

By comparison, I don't think it is being nearly so doctrinaire that people who love music ought to pay attention to it when it is being made, and that those who stop noticing when they aren't providing the sound themselves are not lovers of music. And, of course, like every one of us, they could stand to work on their self-absorption.

These particular young men were just going through a natural part of being human, and needed a reminder that there are bigger things out there, and that even if there weren't, there is the much needed reflex of respect to work on.

For many educators, that is probably the main issue. This is a problem of manners, nothing more. But I think breeding curiosity and desire to understand the thing itself would also help matters. It is an uphill battle to try to take people out of themselves and listen. But it enriches immensely--you and everyone you know. It is like a reverse infection, with positive symptoms. Let's hope we all catch it someday.

There is a fortune all around you. It is tax-free, but not free of effort. And, unlike those little green slips of paper with the dead people with wigs on them, it is freely available (mostly). The downside is that there is joint ownership with everyone else, and if that ruins it for you, I'm sorry. If you choose not to experience it on that basis, there isn't more for everyone else. There is just enough: plenty. And room for everybody if you ever change your mind.

I can't really explain it. You just have to be there. It's amazing. And you are constantly invited.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Goes to Motive

Seven years after the rumor of Mozart's poisoning by Salieri had consumed Vienna, the news had made its way to Russia. In 1830 Alexander Pushkin wrote a short dramatic poem about it. He did no research, and his portrait of the two composers might owe more to an imaginative interpretation of the poet's relationship with his own critics (guess which one they were?) than to anything historical, but it did supply a couple of necessary ingredients in the making of "Amadeus."

One of these is a motive. In the poem, Salieri has to inform Mozart of his own talent. Hardly the "conceited brat" of the movie, Mozart innocently runs some of his music by his older rival, who, unable to contain himself, exclaims "what depth, what profundity!" Mozart seems not to get the point. "What, is it good?" he asks. "My God, Mozart" returns Salieri. "You don't deserve yourself!" More to the point, Mozart doesn't even recognize his own genius. Salieri alone knows it ("It's I who know!").

Given that Salieri was the more successful composer, lauded by all Vienna, favored by the emperor, and with a string of box office bonanzas to his credit not just in Vienna, but in Paris and Italy as well, one might wonder what could have motivated a man like that to want to kill a less successful rival. There was, after all, enough room on the operatic stage for both of their productions (one composer couldn't write more than an opera or two in a single year, and the needs of the public were enough to keep several in business). What Pushkin does is to answer that question, and to do it well enough that what might seem like a long-shot answer is no longer even questioned by the public today. Of course he did it because he alone knew that he wasn't the greatest composer and it was killing him! The rest of Vienna might have thought he, Salieri, was the greater, but he knew the real truth, and he couldn't stand it!

I'm reminded of an essay by Mark Twain ("What is Man?") in which he makes plain that it is the desire to secure one's own approval that takes precedence over everything else; that even when rescuing another person from drowning, it is not an act of altruism stemming from the desire to keep another from harm, but because one's own scheme of values, one's own inner conscience, requires it. In the end, says Twain, we are answerable first and last to our own inner psychological needs. Thus, it didn't matter what Vienna thought, it mattered what Salieri thought. 

Since the drama that unfolds is all in Salieri's mind, there isn't any need for historical evidence to back it up. And it has the genius of transferring the drama from out in the material world of things and events and into the theater of Salieri's own conscience, and, by extension, into ours.

Because all of us, as the movie will make clear, are Salieri. 

Friday, December 7, 2018

oh......Christmas tree!

Today's guest blogger is Rosamunda Erasmus Hammer, aka Rosie Cat.

Hello humans!

I get to make the blog today, and if my human would stop shifting around while I type this I could do a lot better job. Are you finished human? Good.

(I'm sitting on his lap.)

Some of you think I am a very cute feline, but I am also a fierce jungle lion. I don't look dangerous because I am small. If my last humans had fed me enough I would be really big and you would run away so I didn't eat you. But you would not be able to get away from me. Yum. I love to bite things. I bite all the things.

Christmas is my favorite time of the year. There are so many things to play with. I love the thought of the wrapping paper and the ribbons and the strings ooh and the boxes you humans put everything in. I shred the boxes with my sharp teeth. I can't wait until they put up the Nativity scene. I like to be King Herod and attack all the people. That's not in your version of the story but it is in mine. I'm fierce. I like to scratch things with my claws. I have great claws. They are better than Santa's claws. I've heard about them. They are not that great. He is big and moves slow. I could take him.

But the best part is having a tree in the house. Don't tell my humans. I will wait for them to sleep and then I will go to town on all the pretty little things hanging from the tree. I have to work out, you know? Keep up my fizeek.

I can't wait for Christmas this year. It will be so awesome. Just thinking about all the boxes makes me want to go attack something. Bye!
now it is later and I just saw a vidaoh where the humans put the tree inside a cage so the cats couldn't get it. That is not funny. Don't do that, humans.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Old Habits

A colleague and I were discussing what can happen when you go back to a piece you learned some time ago. If the acquisition of the piece happened when you were still gaining technical skill, you may find yourself having some of the same old problems that you had the first time you learned the piece. I recalled a piano concerto I had worked on during my freshman year at the conservatory. Having grown up in a small town and then entered the conservatory deficient in formal training, I made a lot of progress, particularly during my sophomore year. When I returned to the piece after a period of a year in order to play it for a competition I had a nasty surprise waiting for me. "Oh no!" I exclaimed. "My wrists were like bricks!"

In the meantime I had learned a much more fluid way to treat my entire playing mechanism. And that endured so long as I was playing anything for the first time. But returning to an old piece before the improvement was like opening a time capsule. My body reverted to all sorts of old habits.

This is presumably why musicians sometimes express regret at learning pieces of music too soon. It isn't impossible, in my experience, to unlearn all of those old habits, to update one's approach to an old piece, but it does take a lot of conscientious work.

This is also one of the many helpful things about having a good teacher. Besides teaching you technique in the first place, they are able not simply to curb the enthusiasm of young people who want to learn the most challenging pieces before they are able to play them, they can suggest synonyms--pieces that have some of the same challenges and hopefully the same attraction, and that will prepare the student to play the piece they (and every other young charge on the planet) want to play.

There is hope in the process. Any great piece of music is worth visiting time and again, putting away, returning to, playing it in recital and for friends, putting away again, returning to it years later. Over time we should have refined our approach, learned new things about interpretation and how to use our bodies most effectively for the musical presentation. As an organist I am more aware of this process than as a pianist, for my organistic journey is newer. Nonetheless, I am sharing the piece below, one of the fun pieces in the organ literature, which I first learned a year and a half ago, and recording about six months ago. I play it better now. I played it better a week or so after the recording! But it's not a bad start on a somewhat challenging piece, and having already played it in concert once and to conclude a couple of church services and for a lecture recital, I look forward to many more occasions to journey through time with this exciting piece of music. Enjoy!

Vierne, Louis. Final from Symphonie no. 1

Monday, December 3, 2018

Well that explains it!

It started with a rumor. Rumors tell us why, and give an event purpose. They also comport with what we think we know about the way things work.

  “Mozart is dead,” a Berlin newspaper wrote in December of 1791, less than a month after his death….”Because his body swelled up after death, some people think he was poisoned.”
Although his doctors later went on the record saying his symptoms matched the same disease that carried off any number of his fellow Viennese that same winter, Mozart couldn’t just die that way. After all, he was young, and a genius. You can’t just die of some random disease when you are a young genius, right?

Nobody seems to have been saying who did the poisoning at this point. At least, we have no written accusations. In fact, if there was any poisoning, one of the hundreds of theories about Mozart’s death suggests that he may have been doing it himself, taking frequent doses of medicine that, not uncommon to the 18th century, had some ingredients in it that were harmful, like mercury, for instance.

It wasn’t until 1823 that a suspect was connected with the crime, and this bit is rather sensational. Antonio Salieri, a ripe old 73 years old, and probably in only partial custody of his wits, tried to kill himself. This much is history. And the rumor that swirled around Vienna afterwards was that he had confessed to the crime of killing Mozart.

People who were with him tried to undo the damage, claiming, in a signed newspaper article, that they had been with Salieri the entire time, and that he never said any such thing. And there is the story that on Salieri’s deathbed he dismissed the whole thing as nonsense.

But it was an attractive rumor. Even Beethoven’s friends were talking about it. We know because in the conversation books of the then completely deaf composer are the written queries and responses of those friends, and these seem quite certain that Salieri is guilty of the crime. Since Beethoven could speak, we do not have records of his answers.

The rumor persisted. It was, after all, very useful. It explained why Mozart had not made more of an impact earlier in the musical world. Musicologists of the succeeding century, often a combative bunch, liked to take out their ire for the non-recognition of Mozart’s genius on the fickle Viennese public, giving themselves the sacred duty of righting a great wrong, and giving the great man a reputation and a career supposedly denied him in life.

The people, on the other hand, the same ones who in many cases had made some of this operas and instrumental pieces the 18th century equivalent of smash hits, or at least minor hits, needed a reason that all of this came to such a premature end.

Every story needs a good villain.

Salieri was a foreigner. His music was going out of style.  And his last name even begins with an S.
I mean, what else could you possibly need?

Friday, November 30, 2018

The Second Heinz Chapel Recital

Heinz Memorial Chapel in Pittsburgh is a really nice place to play an organ recital. It is, as you will see, quite visually spectacular. Frank Kurtik, one of the docents there (and a super nice guy) takes spectacular pictures, and in this case the subject matter doesn't make that too difficult. Strangely enough, although I gave a recital there in May, none of the pictures Frank took this time around matched any of the angles from the last time.

Here are a few from the last concert to round out the perspective:

If you'd like to catch the music, for the next week (until Dec 7) it will be up at PianonoiseRadio. In addition to offsite recordings there is a link to  live concert video from my Facebook page. If you weren't quick enough to catch this program on Pianonoise Radio, I'm sure you can find something else nice to listen to on the same page (like the holiday program). It will come around again, eventually.

In the meantime, it still isn't quite Christmas at pianonoise--not for another week, but I'm getting pretty excited. It's nice not to be tired of Jingle Bells by the middle of October, don't you think?

ok, some of you clearly don't think so. That's your right. But in a week we'll both be chilling on the musical eggnog, and I've got a few new pieces for you again this year, so -- see you back here in a few days, and Merry nothing-just-yet!

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Fast Fingers

I am frequently asked how to achieve speed. I presume people would like to be able to do this as quickly as possible. Which is understandable. We've all got places to go.

I can't recall now just how many hours I spent trying to get my fingers to be a disciplined blur at the keyboard. I do remember my teacher playing on my wrist numberless times, illustrating the little flick of the finger--that instant, mosquitolike tap that immediately engendered complete rest for the finger that did the flicking. It was a tiny, purposeful impulse, that I've since compared to a static charge passing from the finger to the exact point in the key's descent where the hammer is released unto the string. It is much more matter-of-fact than an electric shock, though. It happens suddenly, and in a manner that in no way disrupts the complete equipoise of the finger in charge.

What is really in charge, though, is the mind. And that mind is like a conductor, cue-ing in the oboe player, and then leaving the player to play the passage on her own, because no amount of micromanaging is necessary in a well-trained orchestra, nor would it yield reasonable results. It is time for the cue, the cue happens, and then it is time for something else. Well ordered, perfectly efficient little motions, with no excess, no feeling of pressure left in the finger afterward, everything transferred exactly from the arm to the piano. And the brain that ordered it a complete picture of Apollonian calm.

Mind you, I spent years and dollars in the pursuit of this. I can tell you this for free, but if you want to have any actual chance of achieving it, you'll have to send multiple installments of $69.95.

In other words, you'll need lessons. And lots of hours of practice.

It would obviously be more kind if there was another way. But I don't know of one. If it helps any, being on the receiving end of mass adulation regarding such dexterous digits is not everything it seems to be. It can actually be kind of...well, unfulfilling.

But I don't mind exercising my skill sometimes. And while, on the one hand, I am at pains to downplay the value of the fast and/or loud as a substitute for all things substantial, it still is nice sometimes to just let 'er rip and enjoy the scintillating sounds.

Recently, the piano in our social hall at the church was refurbished; the action, redone. I made a recording of a sonata movement by Clementi which I'll share with you now. It isn't high on the substance meter, but he does have a lot of scales that shoot up and down the keyboard and it is nice to be able to make them sizzle. So here it is, on the new action:

Clement: Sonata in Bb, 0p. 47 n.2, I. Allegro con brio

Monday, November 26, 2018

Who wants to know?

“There will, indeed, be some incredible passages, but, when you write a comedy and want applause, you must exaggerate somewhat and not adhere with too much fidelity to the reality of things.”
                                                     –Mozart, letter to his father, 1781

It's not exactly my favorite part of Amadeus. In fact, it makes me a little queasy.

It isn't part of the movie itself. It's the trailer. I played it for the class I taught about the movie, mostly to show how material from the opening of the play had been re purposed in the theatrical trailer. Said trailer focuses on all of the rumors and innuendos, all the outrageous bits, all of the scandals and the things that would absolutely shock you, good little theater goer with your high-end morals. But of course, you are there because of the rumors, and the gossip, and the naughty bits, because, as the narrator slimily breathes "that's what you reallllly like."

That doesn't exactly stick the landing for me. It's not quite up there with "we were just following orders" but it does have the ring of every person who has ever shown violence on the screen or in other forms, or peddled any product that kills, telling anyone who has a problem with this that, hey, they are just giving people what they want.*

Which has the advantage of being largely true.

It also has the air of anxiety. This is a film that will seem to be about the life of a classical composer. And he's dead. And he's got a wig on. Why on earth should we care? Oh, right. Revenge. Betrayal. Intrigue. Lust. All the good stuff.

This is presumably why they tried so hard to market the movie this way. To get people to see it.

It does not suggest that historical truth is going to be their first priority. Unless it just happens to be really "dizgusting."

Add to this the natural mechanism whereby human beings tend to remember fiction much more readily than they do history. Why, you ask? Another time. But they do. Ask a certain generation about George Washington and out come stories about cherry trees and silver dollars. Ask people about Mozart and...

There is much about this movie that is either historically accurate or at least might be. And a great deal that isn't. And the way to get a handle on it is this: if it's the stuff you remember, the stuff that sticks with you when you leave the theater, it is probably false. The historically accurate stuff is the part you don't really notice. It's in the details.

Those details are fascinating, based on copious research, and played with endlessly to produce new combinations. They are, in the end, not what the movie is about. But if you want the truth, and you are able to go out and find it independently of the movie, it is a very interesting thing to see.

It's the plot that doesn't ring true, and all of the dramatist's decisions to move it forward and make a gripping tale out of a mass of circumstances.

And it's not that the author lies to you, exactly. Most of the time he just presents the material in such a way that you do that yourself.

* This is also why our mothers fed us cookies and cake for every meal as children. Because that is what we really wanted. Really? Yours made you eat vegetables? Sucker.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Music in the Crevices

Last Saturday I had a concert in a cave. Lincoln caverns is about two-and-a-half hours east of Pittsburgh. It is well-lit, and the formations are quite stunning. The acoustics aren't bad, either, though there turned out to be more reverberation at the organ recital I gave the next day. I am parked with a keyboard in one of the pictures below to accompany the soprano, Jett Downey of East End Song Studios, who arranged this fascinating trip. Our location is on the same spot that the cave was entered by the young man who discovered it in the 1940s. Our devoted audience stood up for the short recital and participated in some of the numbers.

Here we are in the command control room, getting instruction and having lunch. Then we toured the cave (after visiting the gift shop, of course) and had our concert. I am a cave-concert virgin no longer.
(I had a blast! no, don't say blast. That's not something you want to say when you are in a cave.)

It was fun.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Music in the Cracks

Life is starting to return to normal. There was a great interruption a couple of years ago when I was diagnosed with cancer at the same time as we needed to move to continue Dear Wife's medical education. I wound up getting my first impressions of my new environment attached to an IV bag. Then I was unemployed, friendless, and not-quite-right in body or mind for a while. But slowly I began to make contacts and break into the musical scene around here.

Two years later it's still not a done deal, but I've had three concerts this weekend in addition to two church services, a rehearsal and a class. The calendar is as full as it's been so far. People who know other people are starting to hire me to do various things and are even beginning to find out some of the various things I am able to do.

Some of those things are what enabled me to survive the last several days. I improvised a prelude at church this week so I could work on the pieces I needed for the additional service last night, as well as the pieces I played in class, in rehearsal, and in the three concerts. I also sight-read a number of things, or at least learned them very quickly, because there is not enough time to deal with a high volume of music on short notice.

That's the life of a professional musician. You don't get all semester to work on your recital piece. You have to work fast. And if, as it happens, you want to do things on top of what pays the bills, pieces of music you want to engage with in order to learn, understand, be challenged, be satisfied, share them with others, record them for your website...well, that has to be done in your spare time. And it turns out, if you work at it long enough, hard enough, and are determined enough to use every spare minute in creative ways for creative can get a lot done over time. Thirty hours and counting of recordings made in the cracks between rehearsals and concerts, lessons, meetings, compositions, and whatever else.

It adds up, eventually. But it can be exhausting. And there is a science to using your time effectively, a skill that improves with time.

It seems odd that a person who makes music for a living and a person who does not has this in common, but making the music you want to make is often just as extra-curricular for the musician as it is for the amateur. People will not often pay you for the exalted flights to Parnassus. All the little Johnnies of the world aren't there yet. And little Janie doesn't want to sit through the final sonatas of Schubert. Unless you are one of the few globe-trotting pianists who makes a career of playing nothing but concerts--and there are perilously few of them; even they generally teach at top-ranked music schools for a living--you too will experience substantive music making as a hobby, as a thing that often gets visited upon the unsuspecting public who isn't exactly clamoring for it.

But then, once in a while, they find themselves not minding it so much after all. A crack opens in the cave and light pours through. Between soccer practice and that meeting and the kids' travel t-ball teams and the conference and scouts and everything else. As if the world stopped for a split second and we could all hear the music of eternity.

It doesn't happen a lot. But when it does, it is amazing.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Nothing but the truth?

People who have seen "Amadeus," and even people who haven't, when asked if they think the movie is presenting actual history usually hedge their bets a little. Being sophisticated, worldly types, we all know Hollywood tends to stretch the truth, play with it, or bury it completely if the result is at least supposed to provide a more entertaining alternative. But of course, when asked about the life of Mozart, what comes out is from the movie. And why not? That's all most people know. They didn't read books about him, program notes, pamphlets: most people spend no time at all thinking about Mozart, or even being particularly curious. So, naturally, the movie, even if we know it probably is not exactly true, still represents Mozart in our minds, if only because it has no competition.

This can be frustrating for people who know that history and would really prefer people didn't get their history from entertainment, and consequently get the two of them mixed up.

If you happen to be particularly scrupulous in this regard, there are plenty of resources out there to try and help you sort out the truth from the not-so-truthful.

But if that's all you're after, you're kind of missing the point of Amadeus. It isn't a documentary, that's for sure. It isn't really meant to be used to teach people about Mozart (this means you, music teachers!). Its relationship to history is actually quite complicated. Some things are carefully researched; some things are made up, but with a pedigree. And there is value in knowing the history itself, because when you do, you can start to appreciate the genius of the dramatist and how bits of what really happened provide the jumping off point for something completely new and important. But you're still missing the point.

"Amadeus" is a work of art. It isn't meant to tell us what happened, or how it happened. In order to "get it" we need to be looking in a different direction completely. And that, in the end, is where this blog series will be leading us.

Bring your preconceived notions. And a lighter.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Blogging Amadeus

One of the greatest movies ever made about a composer--which is not really about the life of a composer at all--is the movie "Amadeus." Based on a play by Peter Shaffer, directed by Milos Forman, it was released in theaters in 1984, and is now available on DVD in a "director's cut" in which some scenes that were cut for time in the theatrical release were restored in what is now a three-hour run time. Since you don't have to watch it all at once this is more than justified, although if you have a young audience, some of the deleted scenes might better be passed over. In one of them we see a little more of Mrs. Mozart than the film review board might be comfortable with.

I've recently taught a course on this movie, and thought it would be worth trying to translate some of it into a blog series, partly to help teachers who want to use the movie in their classrooms, as well as general film buffs who wondered about the historical authenticity of the film and other matters. And if any of my students would like to use this blog to continue the conversation--or if anyone else wants to jump in--you are welcome.

This blog series will take place on Mondays. (Mondays=Mozart). I plan to follow the general outline of the class, which began with a lengthy prologue in which we discussed the film as history or not, and if not, what it actually is and how we might appreciate it even if we find fault with it, then got into the actual history of the people involved, found out where Peter Shaffer got his ideas for the film by tracing a Viennese rumor through a poem by Pushkin and an opera by Rimsky-Korsakov, and then dove into the film itself, not entirely in score order, taking on various big topics as the occasion warranted.

See you back here on Monday!

Friday, November 9, 2018

Fake Blog

This isn't a political blog, and on Monday I plan to go back to writing about Mozart. But in the wake of the Synagogue shooting here in Pittsburgh, when I felt it necessary to both show support for the victims and try to imagine what drives people to go shoot their fellow human beings, I thought I would add my voice to the concern over a really basic problem we have in this country right now. That would be the refusal to agree on basic reality.

I have two examples, the first of which is much less destructive than the second. It concerns several people on Facebook who were ridiculing a tweet that supposedly came from Nancy Pelosi. Now before we go on let me make clear that this has nothing to do with whether or not you like Nancy Pelosi. I can think of several reasons not to. Having an opinion that ranges from extreme admiration to total disgust is still an opinion, and we are all entitled to ours. Nonetheless, the proxy object of scorn was the tweet itself, which read in part "I am angry at Donald Trump for allowing Americans to keep more of what they earn."

Obviously, this was an attempt to describe the tax cut. And obviously, there is a problem with it. Nancy Pelosi did not write it.

How do we know? Three ways. The first is that this does not pass the smell test. No Democrat is going to use the phrase "allowing Americans to keep more of what they earn" to describe a tax bill that was passed by Republicans. "Asking wealthy Americans to pay their fair share" would make more sense. You can agree with the first formulation or the second depending on how you interpret this bill. But if you know anything at all about political spin and the language used by different politicians to describe the same event, you know that that first version is a Republican talking point, and makes no sense coming out of the mouth of a Democrat.

Nonetheless, people were lined up around the virtual water cooler to insist that, even for Nancy Pelosi, this was the dumbest thing she ever said.

Sigh. We really should have done a better job teaching reading comprehension in schools.

Somebody else pointed out that the website snopes, com, which makes it its business to investigate the truth of various claims, has declared this tweet to be fake.

Then another individual noticed a watermark in the corner of the tweet showing that it was from a website that allows anyone to create their own tweets that look like they came from anyone's account.

Despite and still, people kept ridiculing Ms. Pelosi on the basis of that tweet. If they'd said the tweet was fake but they still thought she was awful, that would be one thing. That they kept insisting on the tweet's authenticity shows a reckless disregard for reality. They weren't going to let a few facts get in the way of their hatefest, apparently.


For the second example I'm going to reach back all the way to the Middle Ages. It is far more sinister, and while it is ancient history, and could lead us to feel good about how we aren't doing things like that anymore, I think the recent shooting should keep us from getting too comfortable about the notion of human progress.

The Jewish people, and anybody who hasn't spent their entire life in a cave, is aware that there has been and continues to be mindless hate toward Jews, often leading to horrific actions.

One of the myths that refused to die during this time was the notion that Jews would kidnap Christian babies and sacrifice them during their strange rituals. Now, anybody who knows the slightest thing about Judaism knows this to be a steaming pile of utter ridiculousness.

In one bizarre example, a man was accused of just such a crime. He was executed for it, too, despite not only the complete lack of evidence, but the fact the nobody in the village or anywhere in the area had even reported a child missing!

The impossibility that he could have committed the crime did not get in the way of the people's need to exercise their hate on a people they believed to be a threat. They did so often. They continue to do it. The man who shot the people at Tree of Life insisted that his own people (Aryans?) were being "slaughtered." This is apparently, what in his mind justified the killing of all those people.

Most of us, from all over the political spectrum, agree that that mind is diseased. Unfortunately, there are ways, large and small, in which people are no longer able to agree over basic reality. This is clearly not something new in human history; it is, unfortunately, fairly common. But when we insist that something or someone who is basically peaceful is an existential threat to our existence despite a complete lack of evidence we go from reasonable caution to a justification for the most horrific acts of violence.

Ask the graves at Auschwitz.

Friday, November 2, 2018

In Harm's Way

I've never understood why people don't think it can happen here. Sooner or later, it is going to happen here.

If here is my neighborhood, then last Saturday, it very much did. Evil made a stop in Pittsburgh on its never-ending tour. It was brought to us by the same combination of psychotic episodes and violent rhetoric as the rest. A man who thought the world was out to get him, egged on by others with a similar mindset and a President who derives power from convincing America to be scared silly by everybody that doesn't look like them.

If that seems unnecessarily political and unfair to you, you should look into their respective twitter accounts. The language of the President and the language used by the shooter are almost identical. Both warn of "invasions" by "those people" and are not in the least subtle that they have to be "stopped." The only difference is in which group is being targeted. But you can't pick and choose when you are unleashing the forces of fear and death. Those don't respect boundaries around the people you think will vote for you. You might recall that those Nazis in Charlotte were chanting that "Jews will not replace us." The "good people," you know.

The shooter did go the President one better, however. He said, in his last tweet that he was "tired of watching my people get slaughtered. I'm going in," he said.

Slaughtered? What in the ever living hell does he mean? Who is slaughtering whom here?

This is the language of violence. It is always convincing itself that it is actually the target of those other people, and that it is just trying to protect itself. And then somehow six million Jews wind up dead because they were supposedly the aggressors. Those Nazis were just trying to defend themselves from a vast world conspiracy.


The problem is, you can't argue with fear. If you try to tell it is hasn't got a freaking clue it just assumes you are the enemy. Part of the problem. You don't get it, it says venomously. But you the end--when we shoot all of you.

After an incident of mass killing people are understandably worried. But then the fear farmers fan the flames: It wasn't Jews that guy was after (even though he said it was) any more than that fellow who shot up a church full of Black people was after African Americans (even though he said exactly that). No, you and me, Joe and Jill White Anglo-Saxon Protestant better be really worried. Worried enough to let our civil rights vanish as fast as they can. Also, buy all the assault rifles you can, before some Democrat takes them all away.

Tree of Life Synagogue is about two blocks from the church where I play. Folks here are talking about locking doors, getting more's already a challenge for a new person to find their way in to the building (most churches have about a dozen, and only one of them is unlocked), and to be welcomed. Now it's going to require a degree in it.

There is, of course, no guarantee that some Sunday morning we won't all be mowed down during a service--even Joe Protestant, though that is a lot less likely if you are not a minority or black or a non-Christian group, much as fear-mongers like to blur the lines so they can spread fear everywhere. About the only thing that is guaranteed is that some people will use that as an excuse to stoke more fear and tell us the solution is to arm ourselves all the more and trust each other all the less. It will seem reasonable to some, and an absolute necessity to others. After all, those folks who stockpiled all the weapons out of fear the government was going to get them did end up dead in the end, didn't they? It would never occur to them that the only reason the government was even concerned about them in the first place was because of their arsenal. People of Fear never consider the possibility that they might themselves seem a threat to others, so full are they of their own fear that other people are out to get them. What is really bizarre is the size of that threat. It can be people carrying signs, or kneeling, or being Jewish (or black, or gay, or left-handed, or liberal). And somehow, the way to deal with that threat is with lead bullets. The white male thinks he is under assault in America, so he goes and buys an assault rifle.

There doesn't seem to be anything one can do about that. You can't laugh at fear--it thinks everybody is doing that already (they're all laughing at us!) and it just furthers their sense of persecution. You can't argue with it. It just thinks you are too stupid to know what's really going on. And you can't acknowledge it: it just gets bigger and bolder. The least you can do is not encourage it. But in any case,  it does its thing in our midst, and some of us, living with the ever-present possibility of getting shot, live our lives anyway, trying to do what is right and good, not turning to the right or to the left,  not giving in. And if we die, we die. I've been seeing this attitude everywhere lately, this goodness and mercy that some people feel doesn't exist because it doesn't fit their fear. Feeling persecuted all the time does shrink your perspective. It doesn't help your reasoning powers, either. I still recall an online comment from one guy to the effect that soon it was going to be illegal to be a white male in this country. I wonder which mostly white, male legislature he thought was going to pass such a law.

There were vigils in Squirrel Hill last weekend, and a protest. At the protest there were signs from every community that has been abused by our current leader. And there were words in support of all of them. The Jewish community doesn't stand alone here. This weekend everyone is invited to Synagogue. Everybody, united.

It is strange how many people think of division: just as the people with the signs are often seen as a bigger threat than the people with the guns, the ones using words like "invasion" and "infestation" to describe people are supposed to be the uniters and the people who don't find this bullying acceptable are the dividers.

Meanwhile, in our neighborhood, people who are "supposed to" be enemies are coming together. The Muslim community was first in line to donate to the relief fund for the Jewish community. (They know that this week it was your people; next week it may be ours). Every day, usually in small ways, people are not only polite to each other, they are looking out for each other. It seems like an alternate reality. Something you'd never believe unless you were a part of it. It is as if there are two kingdoms, filled with very different citizens, defined by who they love and who they hate, occupying the same space, but living two very different realities. They bump into each other on the street, but they are going in opposite directions.

Friday, October 26, 2018

It is a dark and stormy night

I'm writing this on a night when the weather is most fowl, dark, and Novemberish, with more than a hint of gloom; wet, and cold. Fit for contemplation from a distance.

Fit for tales from the beyond.

Here's one I like to bring out for Halloween--a musical tale. It was written by someone long dead, and unidentified, intended to be played on the organ, that thunderous instrument that inspires terror in so many who dare not approach any building in which it may be housed, awe in those who do. Be prepared for the former reaction.

Reduentes in La (anon.; from the Buxheimer Orgelbuch, 15th, century)

Its connection with Halloween is tenuous; I mostly put it there because the opening note sounds like another, more famous composition also associated with the spooky occasion (and also speciously). And, it is old. Very old.

We often find old things to be frightening.

Whoever wrote this piece is long dead. Their bones may be lying in the ground somewhere, all the flesh long eaten away. What they thought, and how they lived and whom they loved and what they did with their spare time if they had any, and what they thought of the king and how they died, is all a mystery that they carried to their grave.

But such speculation may be overshooting the mark a little. Most of us probably find old things frightening simply because they are unfamiliar.

I spend much of my time these days in the French, Gothic building pictured above. That photograph is a little dramatic: taken from an angle certain to make things intimidating, and of a part of the architecture that frowns more than some parts of the building; nevertheless, I fear it not. But then, it is part of my regular rounds. I don't fear the sounds of the organ, either, though an occasional thrill still runs through me during the performance of some compositions, no matter how often I play them. I should probably try one of them on Halloween with the lights off.

I might have lost something back there, before I became too well acquainted with history, and architecture, and the plots of scary movies that are actually fairly predictable much of the time, and have lost the thrill of the unfamiliar. But I hear the strains from that piece from so long ago and can't help thinking about the Black Death. Is that too pedestrian because it is real? I'm sure it frightened many persons in its day. It could again.

Maybe our mystery composer was among them.

I wonder what that person experienced. Was the church cold? Was the ink runny? Was there an interruption between measure three and four, and 14 and 15, or did the work flow pleasantly on a warm spring afternoon by the churchyard. In solitude or harassed by parishioners demanding things constantly? Were there cares at home? Were they proud of their work? Was it borne of inspiration, perspiration, some of both?

Which is more frightening: that we will never know the answer to any of these questions, or that the vast bulk of humanity really doesn't care in the least. We are all too busy hurrying to our own graves to care about someone we'll never meet who inconsiderately beat us to it.

Sleep well, my friends. It is a dark and stormy night.

Friday, October 19, 2018


I didn't want 2018 to get too far gone without taking note of some of the composer anniversaries. There have been plenty of Leonard Bernstein celebrations in the US, of course, this year being the 100th anniversary of his birth. Bernstein didn't write a great deal for the piano, and I don't play what he did write. Also, it's all under copyright so I can't legally record any of it. But you have probably gotten plenty of Bernsteinania elsewhere so I don't feel too bad about the omission.

There are some deathiversaries as well. Claude Debussy's is the biggest. He died in 1918--I haven't posted much about him, either, though there are a few short piano pieces in the archive.

But since the internet doubtless has him covered, it is worth mentioning a couple of smaller figures that might not be getting the blanket coverage.

One is Cesar Cui. I wrote about him in the spring, I think, when I discovered a little organ piece which I recorded. You can read the blog and listen to the piece here.

There is one more from the archive, though, and it stands right at the top of the page of piano music. The page is listed alphabetically by composer, so this fellow gets to be right at the top, even pulling rank on venerable Johann Sebastian Bach.

I'm talking about Felix Arndt. He didn't live very long, and the flu epidemic of 1918 didn't help. What he did compose would be classed as novelty piano, which I don't really specialize in. But a few years ago I was playing a concert in an old vaudeville theater and a short post-intermission crowd pleaser seemed in order. I chose Nola, a piece he wrote for his fiancee, the eponymous princess of his heart, a person, not a city.

Over the Christmas break I remember practicing the piece in the living room of a distant relative (I was really throwing this thing together fast--the four days between Christmas and New Year's Eve were about all the practice I was getting and I was learning this piece from scratch). My host thought she remembered some words.

If you are the right age, you might, too. I think I played the piece slowly enough that you might be able to sing along. Apparently, Liberace made a thing of playing the piece really fast and virtuoso, but I like the elegance of a more stately tempo. Here is my recording, which I made a day after we got the piano back to its environs from the theater to which it had been moved (I don't always take my own pianos when I play on location, just some times!). It might have been some moisture on my shoe, but the pedal squeaked a bit. If you have the recording turned up super high you may notice it. If you notice it, turn it down!

And enjoy the music. Here's Nola:

Nola by Felix Arndt

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!

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