Friday, August 31, 2018

Driving in Pittsburgh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 24, 2018

The Students are Back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 17, 2018

Getting Through

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 10, 2018

On a deadline

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

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

My answer? sort of. Then I elaborated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to practicing for tomorrow.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Rosie's not riveted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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