Friday, March 30, 2018

St. Michael of the videos

Some saints would lie on beds of nails, or live in the same tiny crevices for years, unable to move. Or in muck and filth. Or beat themselves with rods.

Then there are the ones who gave up chocolate for Lent. You know who you are.

I chose an even stranger path. Internet videos. So strange that it seems perfectly natural in this day and age. Except for them not starring kittens. Otherwise, what could possibly be Lenten about them at all?

Well, to start with, I had to get up early. The videos went live on Facebook every morning at 8 a.m., which meant I was up by 6:30 and out the door by 7:30. That wasn't all that big a deal, except for the every day part. Every day, for 40 days I improvised on some Lenten hymn or on whatever came to mind from the organ console at Third Church in Pittsburgh, the church where I am organist. Also, Lent takes a break on Sundays, but I didn't. I work that day and have to get up early. And on those days, Sunday mornings, I took a break from improvising to play composed Toccatas, pieces other than the Widor toccata of Easter fame, and to boost the posts to advertise our presence as a church to the people of East Pittsburgh. So, between the two pieces of the plan, Lenten improvisation days, and Sunday Toccata days, there were 6 and a half weeks of continuous getting up early* and going to church, and sitting at the organ, and playing whatever came out, sometimes with no warm up.

I don't think straight at 8 in the morning. That was a problem.

Going live to whoever is out there listening can also do things to one's nervous system, particularly first thing in the morning--Although it turned out that most mornings, nobody was listening, and that, as I saved the videos for later viewing, there might be at most about a dozen viewers--So if you were thinking I was mixing up a Lent discipline with becoming a celebrity, don't worry about it.

Later on, there might be upwards of 40 people (a Lenten number) watching some of the videos. I don't know whether they like them--some of the most watched videos were predictably the loud and fast kind, but more often I was not feeling flashy, particularly as this is Lent, after all. Most of these folks are friends of mine from the place I last lived. Which is really why I'm writing this.

I want to thank you for you encouragement, and for going on this strange Lenten journey with me. A few of year have watched and liked all of the videos, most have dropped in from time to time, but if you are hoping to experience something worth sharing (not that there is any guarantee when you are making it up) you hope that someone will be listening, and, if we are lucky, getting something positive out of the experience. At least I felt some connection to the people of Champaign, more than I have in a while, since a required move and the simultaneous disorientation of cancer treatment rudely removed me from your presence.

Saturday (tomorrow) is the last video. And then, live at the end of the Easter service, I'll play the Widor Toccata for anyone who wants to listen. I know that, due to the time difference, most of the Illinoisians who attend the 10:30 service will not be able to hear it live, unless it is on in the middle of Sheryl's sermon. Please don't. You can listen to it later. My friends in East Pittsburgh have the option of hearing it live, and in person if you would like to attend Third Presbyterian at 5701 Fifth Ave in Pittsburgh. You are very welcome. Come up to the organ and say hi afterward. I may be tired but I'm sure to be in a good mood. The last time I played the Widor Toccata after an Easter service I had an enormous tumor in my chest. I thought it might be my last one. But the Widor goes on. I was actually entertaining the heretical thought of playing a different Toccata his year (the Vierne that I played in last week's Sunday morning video and is this week's featured recording on the homepage) much in the manner that Gandalf the Grey becomes Gandalf the White after his near death experience, after cancer I wanted to change up the theme song a little, but I was told there would be much weeping and gnashing of teeth if I didn't play the Widor. So it lives on.

Again, my apologies for the awful sound quality of the videos. I'll get a decent camera one of these days. I did manage a tripod about halfway in, which solved some of my initial problems.

As for the future, I look forward to being able to sleep in just once in a month and half! But for those of you who have kept me company, might I suggest (because I often forget to mention this) that, my website, gets regularly updates with new recordings and articles to the homepage every Friday. All day.

See you around. Next year maybe I'll try the bed of nails. Then I won't mind getting up so early. I don't know about the muck, though.

Happy Easter!

*actually, we where on vacation in Florida one of those weeks, which meant I had to improvise an extra piece every day for a week and prepare them all to auto-post on the days we weren't home.

Friday, March 23, 2018

A Strange Love: or how I stopped complaining and learned to love The Palms

We have a tradition at our church. We sing The Palms as our opening hymn on Palm Sunday.

These are the bare facts. And, as this is a church which does not have that many traditions in worship, it is that much more obvious and important. It is one of the first things that come up when a new pastor wants to know what our inviolable customs are. Liturgically, we are pretty much Christmas and Easter. Ascension Sunday? What's that? Transfiguration of the Lord? Nope. Baptism of the Lord? huh? Pentecost we do. But there we don't do anything differently except sing different hymns-and none, I recall from last year, was specifically related to the Day of Pentecost, or even the Holy Spirit. We are more of a Sunday-go-to-meeting congregation, in which the procedure never varies, and there is a relatively small change in content except to reflect the message of the day.

There are, of course, those festivals in the life of the church. The annual Bazaar, the Rummage Sale, the Seasonal Mice. These things proceed apace every year, and they are sacrosanct. But in worship, there seems to only be one custom. That, and the organist is required to play the Widor Toccata on Easter. I'm used to that--it was the same at my last church. It doesn't bother me much--I like the piece, and I only play it once a year, so, unlike some of my colleagues, you won't get much invective from me.

But The Palms? "Les Rameaux" was written in 1891 by an operatic baritone named Jean-Baptiste Faure. I find it rather mawkish. Of course, mawkish translates to "much beloved" in the Dictionary of the Masses, and this tune has apparently been a part of the Third Church lexicon for some time. Perhaps this summer I'll go find the Old Bulletin Archive and see how far back it goes. The piece itself is not as old as the congregation itself but older than our present building (1903).

Naturally, there have been various attempts over the years to replace the piece with something else, but they have not been successful. Last year, our outgoing pastor thought perhaps it was time to retire it. As a substitute organist I was party to the daily drama of will we or won't we sing The Palms. It was quite entertaining. I threw my hat in the ring as not really a big fan, but when the pastor was overruled, probably by a sobbing (or threatening) parishioner, I played the piece. We sang. It could have been worse. We have a semi-pro choir and they not only can hit the high notes, they are not accustomed to hamming them up. The congregation at large doesn't sing too badly either--they just aren't very loud. But as I was very new last year, I may not have noticed. Perhaps they will sing this with extra enthusiasm. I plan to be on full gusto alert on Sunday to find out.

I hope when we sing the piece on Sunday that the portion of the congregation that can't live without it (I'm guessing they are mostly in their 80s) feel truly blessed and ministered to. And I hope we can minimize any side effect caused by younger persons or persons new to the congregation taking this as a symptom that we have our heads buried in the sands of time and are too hopelessly sentimental to have much to say to the world as it is.  And maybe if anybody who is young and hip (or on their first one) wonders, we can tell them that we do it because it's retro. You know, it's so uncool it is cool again. It's worth a shot.

Anyhow, there may be a virtue in loving things that are old and clunky.

Remember I said that in 30 years.

Friday, March 16, 2018

If you want to get to Carnegie Hall you have to catch a lot of pitas, apparently

It's been a pretty intense week of Pita Catching around here. 

I would have called it an intense week of practicing, but my phone, which knows all about these things, decided to auto-correct "practicing" to "pita catching" when I texted my wife what I was up to, so I've kind of adopted the term. 

Pita catching comes in a variety of forms. It helps to be familiar with all of them, because when you are on a deadline (and you are) you will necessarily experience all of them in a whirlwind of contiguous sensations which are emotionally and physically exhausting enough when you know they are coming. Not to recognize that the valleys of despair are just a normal part of the journey is to succumb completely. And remember, ain't nobody got time for that. 

Palm Sunday is just over a week away now, and for the occasion I've selected a complex piece for organ solo by Jean Langlais (Les Rameaux, or "The Palms").  I've never played it before, and because of my schedule this year so far I've been unable to get a head start on it; so Monday was my first chance to tackle it. I skipped what I call the "introduction phase" which is just looking the piece over, reading through it a time or two, spending 20 minutes practicing bits of it and putting it away for later, given the demands of the calendar. Given the size and difficulty of the piece--nine pages of complex French harmonies and not a single bar of repetition anywhere--my plan was to pounce full out and get as much of the piece familiar and under my fingers at a slow tempo as soon as possible. That first day I managed to practice the entire piece in about four hours.

This meant combining the steps of "discovery" and "the pain." Discovery is obviously fun because you are finding new things, hearing exotic harmonies, enjoying how the composer put the piece together, even sometimes puzzled. It was also mildly intoxication because it reminds me of the Resurrection movement from the Symphonie-Passion by Marcel Dupre which I played years ago in my first year in Illinois, and a flood of associative memories hovered close by without my invitation. The pain comes in when your brain, realizing it is a muscle, and that you have tried to assimilate 9 pages of notes in a single morning, begins to get very tired and bruised. At that point, repeating phrases and whole sections is a lot like bench pressing. Each one is a struggle and leaves you tired. Then you take a short break, brace your courage, and do it again. The longer you practice, the harder it gets. It is an enigma that sometimes practice seems to make a piece worse. This is mainly true in the early stages, and in the first days, when the brain is trying to catch hold of all that new information.

The despair sets in the next day, when, despite four hours of work the day before, you feel as though you have had never seen the piece before, and that nothing you have done is having any impact whatever. This is because it takes the brain a few days to build all of the neuron highways to put it all in storage. Knowing this, you keep practicing, waiting for that eventual day or hour when all of the sudden the piece starts to feel familiar, as if you HAD been practicing all this time.

 I was feeling like a goldfish on Tuesday, with the fabled 3 second memory. Repetitions did little to improve my comfort with the materials. Then I went through a stage where the passages would start to improve after several repetitions, but if I went on to something else and then came back to them I had to start as if from the beginning. On Wednesday the situation was no better--at the start. However, later in the day the piece did assemble itself fairly quickly and I was able to play it from start to finish--a phenomenon I have been aware of for a long time. No results, no results, then suddenly--whoosh. Progress. 

I once had a neighbor who wondered how I practiced and asked if I just played pieces all the way through over and over. Any good musician knows that is not how to practice; however, at this stage in a piece's practice history I will often play through. It gives me an overhead view of the whole, and what it is like to get there. Once I've gotten the piece assembled the first time I am able to see all of the parts that aren't going as well. If I have a close deadline, I also know at this point how close I am to being able to "fake it"--that is, get through it somehow, in case I run out of time to clean and oil all the details. I played through five times before I went to lunch. On Thursday I did more of that. I called it the "fast and sloppy" stage, because I am grasping the whole and even playing it not far from tempo, but am making mistakes. Next I took the piece apart again, and worked each section carefully.  That was Thursday. There was evening, and there was morning.

By Friday the piece is where I wanted it to be at the end of the first week--essentially playable, and in need of more repetition and reinforcement. I've gone from repetition that hurts to repetition that feels great, because my mind, like any mind, enjoys reinforcing what it knows already. My brain is now practicing on its own time, as well, which is a huge supplement. I am no longer afraid of being able to play the piece, having another week to work on it. The second week will be much easier than the first. And a lot more fun. It sounds like music now. I am using a full registration. I know why this man has such a reputation. It is an awesome piece of music.

I am still not done. I can play most of the piece once I've practiced for a while. I can't begin to play it cold, the first time. Nor would I want to do it under nerves, or after a lengthy choir rehearsal and a pancake dinner. This requires much more tightening, and a firm grasp of every measure. I've done this many times before, and I know what it will take, and how long. How a piece seems to accelerate as it is learned, so not to despair in the early days, but to get as much of a head start as possible, and let your head do its part. To work everything carefully, and then try to put it together, to take it apart again, lather, rinse, repeat. And all under constant diagnosis. Because even when a passage sounds fine to a listener, it may not be. If it took too much mental effort to get to a chord, even if there was no hesitation, that part will not withstand pressure later on. The better one can diagnose, the better one can improve. It also makes practice, with all of its ups and downs, much more interesting. I never look at a watch, count repetitions, or wonder when I can be finished. My brain is too busy for that.

 Speaking of which, it is a new day, and I've got more pitas to catch.

Friday, March 9, 2018

If you're just joining us...

I seem to be making a number of new musical friends lately, who may be new to this blog, so I thought I'd give a little introduction.

First, the basics. I'm Michael Hammer. I'm a pianist and organist, composer, teacher, and blogger, and I live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This blog is attached to a rather involved website with hundreds of articles and recordings devoted to all kinds of things musical which I've been running since 2002.

When I started pianonoise, I was a graduate student in piano performance at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. Once I earned a Masters and Doctorate there, I started spending more time hanging out with the organ, which is why, as I write this, the banner picture at the top of the blog is a shot of me at the organ. It's kind of a running joke (inside my own head, anyway) that there is more organ-noise around here sometimes. I've been keeping a running tally of recordings in each category to find out.

When I started the website back in the Middle Ages, audio files on the internet were just beginning. For a few years I amused myself writing commentary about various things, and making about a hundred awful sounding recordings which I later repented of when I got a better micing system and regular access to a better piano. I spent about ten years in Illinois during this time. Eventually I started this blog (2012). It's mission is to engage regular folks in the experience of listening to and enjoying music--mostly for piano and organ. It also included blogs written for fellow musicians to sharpen their skills, and some blogs about being a church organist.

These days the challenge is to keep track of all of that.

The easiest way to experience Pianonoise is to check out the homepage every week. I update on Fridays with a batch of new articles and recordings. Some of the articles and recordings aren't really new--I recycle things from years past, but their currency isn't as important as it would be if I were writing about politics or the day's news. After all, Bach is still dead. And his music still lives.

The other thing to note is that while I lead a varied existence, at some point I'll shed light on all of the various sections of pianonoise, new and old, by linking to them on the homepage. Or, if you are intrepid, you can go exploring, by way of the site index, or the listening archive. I try to archive everything worth keeping. I can't promise you won't get lost, and as I happen to be in the middle of a major website renovation in 2018, you might not always find things in the same place.

The site is meant to be a digital extension of myself, and what I find valuable (which is often--but not always-- the thoughts and compositions of other people, and the study of our various traditions upon which I build). It can provide a useful counterpoint to a live concert, for example (i.e., you can often hear me play the music before, or after, the concert, right here).

Everything that you hear is something I have recorded myself, and some of it I've even written (or improvised). My thoughts are my responsibility, although, like everything else's, they are largely inherited. I do try to examine them before I give them back to the universe.

Keep an eye on the upcoming events at the top of the homepage when it is active. Or, you can get on my email list (send to michael@pianonoise: subject "email please") and I'll let you know when I'm giving a concert.

See you around the piano!

Friday, March 2, 2018

The organ: from enthusiastic students to tired instructor!

For the past five weeks, 44 of my best friends have gathered in the sanctuary at Third Church every Thursday afternoon to listen to me wax eloquent about the glories of the organ, and occasionally to let some of the instrument's finest composers take a turn. It's been one of the offerings of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute of the University of Pittsburgh, which I describe as a kind of college for seniors.

For nearly two hours each week I held forth about the history of the instrument, which begins in the 3rd century BC, demonstrated all the knobs, buttons, manuals, pedals, and special features of the unique instrument at Third Church, and played about a half-hour mini concert. It's been quite a bit of work to put it all together, but quite a lot of fun, too. And these folks have been really enjoying it, and, engaged, have been asking good questions. Alas, all good things come to an end. Yesterday was our last meeting. Five weeks is a short semester, though, given all the preparation, probably long enough for this particular course. Did I mention 30-some slides as well?

Also, I've been yearning to get back to the piano. In fact, when someone asked what I was going to teach the next course about, I suggested that while nothing has been decided yet, that it might involve the piano. In any case, our sanctuary seems to be a good place to meet, even though it is not on the official campus. It's on a major bus line so people can get to it easily, and our staff and congregation really like having it here. It gets people in the building on a week day afternoon, which, after the busy sewing mission in the basement on Wednesdays, means two days a week that aren't Sunday. That seems like a good use of space.

And while it lasted, THE ORGAN: FROM PORTABLE PIPES TO MASSIVE MUSICAL MACHINE, which title is a bit fanciful and alliterative, but don't knock it, it got 44 people to sign up for a 5 week class about the organ!--while it lasted, it was great fun to be able to share the wonderful music and to demonstrate the unique properties of the instrument. I've given organ demonstrations before, but having nearly 10 hours of class time spread over five weeks allowed a depth and detail that I've not been able to go into during those at best hour-long demonstrations. Since I proceeded historically, I could ignore all of the buttons and studs for a couple of weeks since Bach didn't have them, and really get into the different stops and sound families on the organ. We also spent time looking at different pipes and talking about how they are designed, how the pipes are tuned, and so on. We didn't actually go into the pipe room (slides) because that would have involved signing release forms longer than the phone book, but I've been up there and enjoyed describing its awe-inspiring and caution-inducing atmosphere while showing pictures of everything my camera could grasp.

Then electricity came along and the organ became a rather different instrument. We were able to discuss images of the organ in pop culture (more slides) as well as hone in on two major types of pieces written for the organ: fugues and toccatas. Of course I played some of the most familiar, but I also made time for some rarities that I particularly enjoy. And in addition to music from Baroque Germany and Romantic France, we heard music from Italy, Spain, England, and America, from composers living and dead. During the penultimate week we discussed the improviser's art, and I had a go at making the mysteries of making it up seem less unfathomable. There was some participation. We'll leave it at that! (smile)

All in all, a successful venture. Students were asking the next course offering by the second week, the church would like to host it again, and the administration seems pleased. So if I'm a bit tired this morning, it is in the best sense. It is time for a break, then on to other things. But, ah, that was fun. And my online "students" will also reap the benefits. See you back here next week.