Friday, June 29, 2018

About the Alligator

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 22, 2018

Our new roommate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 15, 2018

As seen on Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 8, 2018

Dissatisfaction theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 1, 2018

Keep it together

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

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

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

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

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

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

And to be a little goofy.

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