Friday, March 22, 2019

No Laughing Matter

We spent yesterday in our Beethoven class talking about humor. Specifically how Beethoven was a funny guy.

Seriously, he was! I'm not kidding.

Well, sometimes he was funny, anyway. And while I told my students very sternly not to invoke my name as reason for their unruly behavior the next time they visit Heinz Hall, it is permissible, I think, to actually laugh out loud if the composer gives you reason for doing so. As if you could help it.

But the biggest obstacle to all that is that classical music isn't supposed to be funny. We've even got a synonym for it. We sometimes call classical music serious music.

Which simply means serious in its intent. That doesn't mean it can't be comic in its expression. I mean, Shakespeare wrote comedies. It's not like it has to be Vaudeville.

But jokes are in the ear of the beholder. And I think you'll agree that good comedy is in the timing. One person can tell a joke and have you rolling on the ground. Another will tell you something that ought to be hilarious in a way that seems completely unfunny. Why?

As a performer, I would submit that it takes talent. But first, you have to be looking for humor. If you assume always that Beethoven, that great lion of the concert hall, would never stoop to be funny, you'll play him that way. Here's exhibit A:

It's a video that someone posted (probably illegally) on Youtube of a terrific pianist playing a strange little piece of music. Now, I don't have a real problem with suggesting this fellow may have an insufficiency, though I don't like to pan other pianists online, because when you hear him play you'll note that one thing he does not have a shortage of is technical ability. It's astonishing. Jaw-dropping. The guy can play really, really, fast. And cleanly.

But that's sort of my point. I think his take on this piece was that it is a vehicle for virtuosity. Or, perhaps, he thought fast WAS funny. And maybe for some of you it is.

The piece he is playing is something that I had been considering playing in class yesterday on the piano, but time didn't permit. I ran out of time to learn new music (a half dozen sonatas later) and besides, the thing is really long. We had a good time listening to two symphonic movement and three movements from piano sonatas.

This piece is called a "capriccio" which is a whimsical kind of piece (think of a caprice). And it has a posthumously parceled out program, too. The story is that good old stormy, moody Beethoven lost a penny somewhere in his apartment and went ransacking the place to find it. That is supposed to be where the humor comes in. Obviously Beethoven didn't coin the title (sorry). But it is evident from the way that he suddenly shifts from key to key, or throws in those smashed notes (or chords for the full fist) or turns the theme upside down and practically throttles it, that he was having a pretty good time writing it. Not in rage, but in fun. At least, that's my take.

Our pianist, whose video is on youtube, may have been thinking more of rage than humor, or maybe he was just thinking he needed to show his pianistic prowess, which he has plenty of.

Anyhow, have a listen. It will certainly be worth your time.

Grigory Sokolov is the pianist, in the Rondo a Capriccio, op. 129, the so-called "Rage over a lost penny" by Ludwig van Beethoven here on Youtube

p.s. the program notes are worth reading, too.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Beethoven the mediocrity

I had a very disturbing experience this evening in the car.

When I flipped on the radio they were playing Beethoven. I recognized it immediately. The Leonora Overture. They were in the middle of a particularly vigorous section, and I was feeling fine, so while stopped at a red light, I did a bit of conducting. I've heard this piece enough times I'm reasonably confident that if they stuck me in front of an orchestra I could do a creditable job.

My hands called for an accent, which dutifully came out of the radio. Then a legato phrase. The recorded violinists obliged. Emboldened, I cued a crashing chord.

The orchestra suddenly got quiet. Disoriented, I thought to myself, that's weird. Did I misremember that passage? Then they got it wrong again, and the next thing I knew they were off in a completely different episode which I had never even heard before. Page after page of music that was completely new.

It was at this point that, being the music geek that I am, I recovered my mojo and began to guess what was going on. It wasn't Beethoven pranking me from the grave after all. You see, while Beethoven only wrote one opera, he wrote four overtures for it. The overture, the part the orchestra plays at the beginning before the curtain rises, has become a mainstay of symphony concerts and classical playlists everywhere. But there are three Leonora Overtures. I am most familiar with number three. I don't think I have ever even heard number two. And I began to sense that that was what I was listening to. All of the main themes were there, in the right order, but the stuff in between was quite wrong.

It was at this point that, having arrived at home, I had to stay in the car with the radio on just to hear the rest of it. And what I heard horrified me. Some of the passages were wooden, or awkward. Things a tenth-rate composer could have thought up. One phrase answered by a mechanical repetition instead of an inventive and arresting answer. The momentum kept dying out. At one point he couldn't even get the offstage trumpet call right. No wonder this was not Beethoven's final answer.

Beethoven seems to have felt that he kept not getting the overture right, so he kept trying again. I don't blame him. Eventually he even renamed the opera, which was originally going to be named for the strong female character, but ended up being named for her male lover. That's where the fourth overture comes in, the "Fidelio" overture.

You may not want to know this next part, but Beethoven is known to have labored on his scores, sometimes for a very long time. Sometimes his initial ideas are surprisingly weak. But it is as a sculptor that he excelled. The finished product, sometimes after months or years of revisions, is nearly always a masterpiece.

What is interesting is how people often react to that revelation. I remember a a fellow doctoral candidate tell me sincerely that she believed Mozart was a better composer than Beethoven because he didn't have to make so much effort and just tossed off masterpieces the first time. I think this is nonsense, in part because we now know that Mozart actually did make sketches and did have to make revisions some of the time, and also because to me it is the final product that counts, not how you got there. There have always been great artists who have to take the long way around. Is it appropriate to argue with process when you have the amazing results?

There may be some, though, for whom it is a comfort to think that even Beethoven didn't get to Olympus right away. That he could toss off a weak phrase, a poorly planned composition, and that it was often in the trying and trying again that the art happened.

Even Beethoven didn't often have to try four times, though. So what happened? Well, musicologists seem to think that the "2nd" overture is actually the first. And that the "3rd" is the 2nd. (Apparently somebody else got it wrong the first time, too!) The third is clearly a great composition for the concert hall. But apparently Beethoven felt that it didn't serve as a fitting introduction to the opera that was to follow. So, even though he'd produced a wonderful composition the second time around, he tried again. And again.

I'm going to have to listen to the other two in order and get back to you on what I think about those. I'm not particularly worried. This fellow knew what he was doing. I joked to my wife that I was going to have to cancel the class I'm teaching about Beethoven because I didn't think he was so terrific anymore, but that isn't true. And if he weren't Beethoven, nobody would have recorded his first effort. If he had been Brahms, he would have destroyed it so this would never have happened.

Monday, March 18, 2019

We now interrupt our regularly scheduled piano sonata...

If there is one thing that is obvious about the music for Ludwig van Beethoven, it's that he enjoys violent contrasts between soft and loud. He makes sure that's obvious by using very pedestrian themes, or by repeating the same short gestures in the opposite dynamic.

It isn't that he can't occasionally spin long melodies, but short, silence bounded gestures are a basic feature of his musical vocabulary. Maybe he thought Mozart had taken all the good tunes.

In any case, it helps him to be able to sculpt pieces to the finest detail, and it also gives us a sense of drama. If a short phrase is answered immediately by the same gesture in another key, or at a different dynamic level, we quickly sense conflict, or at least dialectic, in the musical argument. Something tense needs to be resolved, some solution sought. Surely these motivic factions can't keep up the fracas all day. One has to emerge victorious.

Of course, if both of the contrasting pairs are really different versions of the same musical idea, then we are left with an internal conflict, which is even more explosive. And whether Beethoven is using tense silences or driving accompaniment patterns, we can't relax until it is over.

Beethoven is famous for the four-note motive the opens his Fifth Symphony. But sometimes he can acheive just as much by drumming on a single note, as he did in his First Piano Sonata. Right out of the box, those Viennese knew they were in for something.

This is the fourth movement of that sonata. Three pounded chords manage to take us on an adventure of around four minutes, with a lyrical reprieve in the middle, when a tender melody takes the floor for a while. Bonus points for you, though, if your ear notices the accompaniment pattern to that melody being made up of three pulsed chords, over and over. He just can't leave that idea alone, even for a few measures!

And the "transition" to that placid tune is just as brusque: three loud chords, again.

Oh yes, and "second theme" of the turbulent sections on both sides of that serene interlude consists of a downward scale. It's like he wasn't even trying to come up with a good theme!

All of this happens in the movement with the fastest tempo possible, "prestissimo."


[Listen to Beethoven: Piano Sonata no. 1 in f minor, op. 2 #1   IV. Prestissimo]

Friday, March 15, 2019

Beethoven the Control Freak

I entitled my lecture yesterday "Beethoven the Obsessive" but a blunter, more contemporary approach might have been the title above.

Last week Kristen and I went on one of our Frank Lloyd Wright tours. We've been on several, and as it happened, were on vacation in a part of Florida near to the campus of Florida Southern University, which happened to be the architect's one opportunity to pretty nearly design an entire city, or, at least a dozen buildings on a single college campus.

To say Frank Lloyd Wright, probably the world's most famous architect, wanted things his way is an understatement. He didn't just design the building, he designed the furniture to go in the building. And he placed it where he wanted it to go. Woe unto you if you moved the furniture and he found out.

Another thing you weren't allowed to do was to buy and install your own light fixtures. If the room got dark before five it was because he had designed it that way. He put windows in the parts of the house that he wanted you to use when he wanted you to use them. Kitchens (which he dismissively referred to as "work space") were small and only for making sandwiches and getting out of there. He didn't like basements, and he didn't do garages. Cars were made for carports. Natural lighting was the way to go. Don't get him started on air conditioning.

On campus there were several spaces made for just passing through, made as narrow and as unattractive as possible. Then the buildings, in which a narrow entrance suddenly broadened to an expansive room (a favorite trick of his), said to everyone: here is were you want to spend your time. There was probably a brood of single-paned windows near by. Wright, the designer of indoor environments, wanted you to spend as much time out of doors as possible, or at least feel like you were outside even when you weren't.

Wright had a theory about life, and the way it should be lived, where you should go and when you should go there, what should be stored where, and what just didn't belong. So yes, he had pretty much decided on everything. If you bought a Frank Lloyd Wright house you had to accept those conditions. Once he even designed a dress for the woman of the house to wear so she didn't clash with his decor. Let's call him, even if we admire his art, a little controlling.

Inevitably, given my series of lectures this month, I began thinking of how he compared to Beethoven.

Beethoven's musical architecture is just as renowned as if he had designed buildings. True, the roof won't collapse on a poorly executed musical composition, but there is a tremendous effect when the structure of every phrase of music adds up to a significant whole. If you read the musicological literature on Beethoven you will often come up against analysis that holds him up as a brilliant designer of musical forms. Single notes, gestures, planted on the first page, return on the last. Things surprise, then seem inevitable. Nothing is wasted, nothing goes unexplored. If Beethoven says he will talk about it, he does. Once he said thirty variations on a single waltz.

Even the endings are important. The stereotypical crashing chords aren't there when they aren't needed. Many years ago I pointed out to my roommate that the theme of the first symphony was a study in acceleration: two chords a measure apart, followed by three at twice the pace. At the very end of that movement, the final chords followed the structure of theme, sans melody, exactly. And then, a full twenty minutes later, at the end of the entire symphony, the same pattern, only twice as slow, concludes the whole essay. Beethoven, had he been an author, would have even made sure the words "the end" bore a direct connection to the materials explored throughout the piece rather than just tacking them on.

It may be easier to control the flow of a piece of music than it is a building, simply because you need less cooperation to pull it off. But in terms of design neither man left anything to chance. Everything that is there is made to connect with everything else. Both have their favorite themes, but the miracle is how those themes have been made to harmonize with everything around them.  For Beethoven it is also about how each possibility is explored, and each theme is developed, a study in variety that is not simply an exercise in diversity but also has one overarching purpose. Like the persons on Frank Lloyd Wright's ideal campus, we are going exactly where he is taking us.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Into the Weeds

Being a classical musician can be a pretty lonely business. Hardly anybody wants to know what you were thinking about all day. My spouse, who is a doctor, gets questions and opinions about medicine all the time. Everybody has something to say about the subject, and everyone has had some experience dealing with it. Or they just want free advice. Nobody has ever asked me about that A-flat that's bothering them.

But starting this week, 80-plus people will be listening to what I think about Beethoven. For two hours, every Thursday. For five weeks. Go figure.

On Saturday, though, I got a head start. A violinist I was playing a gig with had some questions about a piece I played (solo). It was a movement from a Beethoven Sonata, which I dare to think of as humorous. It will be part of next week's class, "Beethoven the humorist." I expect it to be a bit of tough sell, because the image that most people have of Beethoven is that he was by no means a funny guy. My violinist friend was curious because my interpretation had been pretty wild and he wondered just what was in the score. Where those loud chords fortissimo or just fortes? Did Beethoven put a big accent there? How much of a slow down did he want in that one place?

I admitted that it was possible that I was exaggerating some of the effects. Beethoven liked to dispense "sf" pretty regularly and consistently, even sometimes to indicate bringing out an inner voice line. He didn't use the contemporary "sfz." Two f's was as loud as he got (unlike a 20th century composer he didn't use three or four), so any chord marked with ff was probably intended to be pretty loud, since it was the top of his spectrum.

In the end I felt reasonably confident about the loud chords, less sure I hadn't overdone the sf's a bit, even if they were on weak beats, and not sure how much ritardando Beethoven himself would have employed. I don't recall that he used the additive "molto" when he wanted to distinguish a lot from a little.

But here's the case for the defense. In the first place, his contemporaries found him pretty shocking. At least at the time, his accents and tempo fluctuations must have seemed out-sized. You could make an argument that, adjusting for inflation, the same needs to be done for a modern audience or we will miss the point.

And here's the argument from image. Beethoven has become a fixture of the concert hall. He is adored by ritzy concert going upper class people. His music is interpreted and re-interpreted by pianists with publicity photos in suits and ties, staring profoundly off into space while seated at their instrument. Given his propensity for hanging out with people who could support his art, Beethoven always was an outlier associate with the rich and cultured supporters of the status quo, but it is likely now that he has been overcome by them. It is normal for the radical founders of movements and art forms to become domesticated by disciples and succeeding generations so that more people will find them more palatable. I myself have participated in this trend. Having been taught to make beautiful sounds at a Steinway, I just now found myself choosing a passage on a recording in which I did not lay into the accented note with as much vigor as the other times I played it. The note is out of tune on the piano and the results seemed to me more desirable when my finesse obscured this fact. Recording in general tends to make the rough places plain as sonic beauty wins over distorted, pounded notes.

On Friday on this blog we talked about how Beethoven is seen as the stormy musical arsonist. But the industry that has perpetuated him has other ideas. Today Beethoven is played faster and louder then ever, of course. Performers still have to establish their credentials, so that is a trend that will only accelerate. But the silky sounds of a piano that Beethoven never knew, and the refined unfolding of the form move in the opposite direction. Pianists with little or no imagination tend to play phrases more metronomically and give no space to the surprises the composer plants for us. Pieces we've all heard hundreds of times sound completely predictable, each modulation totally normal. It would never occur to many of us to take any particular notice of a turn of phrase that is actually quite astounding if you let it be that way. If you just run on to the next measure you can lose any arresting qualities it might have the way a bad comedian can tell a joke that nobody has time to realize was even funny because the pacing was all wrong.

These are all things that will be going on beneath the surface as we explore "Beethoven: The Revolutionary" over the next month. They are thoughts that will keep playing in my head and will never completely resolve. It was my great grand-teacher, Arthur Schnabel, who suggested that great music is music that can never be completely captured by any single performance because it is better than any performance of it can be.

Of course, during a live performance I may feel able to take liberties I might not in a recording. Too bad for my blog audience. But then, a lot of that reception is going to depend on your ears anyway. What comes across as shocking to you? Or funny? Or beautiful? Or strangely out-there?

Let's take a month to explore it together.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Grand Teachers

In college, a fellow student referred to him as "grandteacher."

Leon Fleischer was coming for a masterclass, and my teacher had been a student of his. Later I took some lessons directly with "grandteacher." It turns out that my teacher (Thomas Hecht) had a very similar teaching style. No wonder he'd been Fleischer's assistant.

Leon Fleischer, at the ripe old age of six, had begun lessons with Arthur Schnabel, the great Beethoven interpreter. Schnabel didn't normally teach children but he made an exception for little Leon.

Schnabel studied with a man named Leschetizky. I had to look that up to make sure I spelled it correctly.

Now, that would make Schnabel my great-grandteacher, and Leschetizky my Great-great grandteacher. He was born in 1830 and settled in Vienna where he taught many eventually famous students. But it is his teacher we are concerned with.

His name was Carl Czerny. The same fellow who wrote all those fun exercises pianists hate to play. He wrote so many that he would work on several at once, writing part of one while he waited for the ink to dry on another so he could proceed to the next measure.

His teacher was Ludwig van Beethoven.

That makes me (and many other pianists as well) a seventh generation pedagogical descendant of Beethoven. And that would also make Beethoven my--let's see here: Great great great great grandteacher.

I don't know that that has anything to do with the price of Sonatas in Singapore, but it is at least an interesting connection. On Thursday I begin a series of lectures about a man I never knew personally, but who gave the world a great deal musically. I've been playing some of it for most of my life. His influence as a composer has been huge. It's never quite as easy to quantify one's influence as a teacher. But his student's student's student's student's student's student is glad of it anyhow, and will do his best to keep that art alive.

Friday, March 8, 2019

It usually comes back to marketing

I've been thinking about Ludwig.

Not Ludwig of Bavaria, the "crazy" monarch, although it has occurred to me that, luck of the hereditary draw notwithstanding, a good percentage of the population might have elected him anyway--no, I'm talking about Ludwig van Beethoven.

There is a popular perception that he was a pretty crazy guy as well, stormy, moody, nasty, and very, very, very serious.

Which may not be all wrong, but if you know popular images the first rule is that they are always oversimplified.

When they were passing out images for classical composers there were only so many to go around. Bach was the intellectual. Haydn got jovial. Mozart got to have a sense of humor, but of a less earthy, surprise-bound variety than his contemporary. When they got to Beethoven, humor had been done already. What was left was shocking. The bad boy of music.

It is true that Beethoven did things in music that had not often been done before. And that he broke strings. And that he told princes that they weren't any big deal just because they were royalty. His music does have quite a few shocking sforzandos in it.

But he wrote a lot of pieces that are beautiful, and jocose, and even, sometimes, funny. In fact, if you look at his entire output, it is surprising the number of musical moods he was in. Stormy is just one of them, and probably not the most often represented.

But everybody needs to have their own individual "thing." Beethoven got his corner of the market because it was different than what had come before. It also helped that he didn't seem to comb his hair. Maybe Mozart should have lent him one of his wigs.

But wigs were out and revolution was in. And images are born because people need them to explain what is going on in their world and to justify it. Images are there to do battle with other images which means they have to have a character that everybody can easily hone in on. And then, once the image jells, they start selling the merchandise, and you can pretty much forget anything that doesn't fit the image then. A picture that had Beethoven actually smiling in it would be worth millions simply because it would be so rare. If it existed.

So now Beethoven is the guy with those fateful eight notes who went deaf and fought a mighty battle with life and everyone around him. Which probably isn't all wrong, but if you know any human beings who can laugh and smile some days and rant and rave on others, who can grin and groan, who can be--what's the word--human? you might wonder if this image of Beethoven even passes the smell test.

But most people don't wonder about that. Images are useful. They serve our purposes. And as long as they do that, we don't ask what else is under the mask. Sometimes we just don't want to know.

I'm teaching a class that starts next week. The Beethoven my students are about to meet is a little complicated. Some of him they'll recognize and some of him they probably won't. What will they think of that one, I wonder?

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

In the moment

If you're looking to write a best-selling self help book in the near future, you could tell people to spend more time living in the present. That's always been a message people are eager to hear.

We like to read about it because we don't do it. Instead we spend a lot of time depressed about the past and worried about the future. Or just distracted.

Effective practice obviously requires being focused on what you are doing in the here and now. If you are worried about what you are going to make for dinner you aren't concentrating. If you are upset about the notes you missed the last time around and all you can think is "don't miss them" you will miss them.

Really letting go of useless baggage is a cultivatable skill. It can take some time. But the real talent is not in the over-simplicity of popular advice, it is in being able to tell what will be useful.

For example, the other night when I couldn't sleep I used the time to rehearse a lecture on Beethoven I'll be giving next week. My brain wanted to keep running and I let it. I had probably had too much caffeine that day. And, while worrying about something I have to do next week is counterproductive, preparing for it is not. Also, a lecture is something you can actually rehearse in your head while you lay in bed, unlike practicing an instrument.

There are ways to accomplish that, however. Once you've got a piece to a certain stage in preparation, you can go over it in your head. But simply worrying about it might not always be a bad thing.

Last week I found out rather suddenly that I would be participating in a master class this month, playing a tricky 20th century French piece on the organ. In the midst of various other preparations, that is just another thing to add. And I wanted to get a quick start on it. But between Monday night and Tuesday morning all I could do is worry about it.

I think that may have helped. I had played the piece before--spent two weeks on it exactly a year earlier. And although I couldn't consciously remember any of it at the time, I think sending signals to my brain that I was going to need it again may have actually helped my research department locate the files.

Anyhow, the handful of days I had to work on it before the next interruption was enough to get started. It's partially memorized, and feels familiar under the fingers.

The brain is a fascinating place. It doesn't come with a manual, and learning how to use it to maximum advantage takes years. Unlike the popular bromide, we can't just live in the present. The past and the future are always part of us. We can always learn from the past and we had better prepare for the future or we won't like it very much when we get there. But there is obviously a place where we have stopped enjoying the once place we actually are, and our obsessions are unhealthy. Figuring that out is what the other 299 pages of your book are for.

Monday, March 4, 2019

More -Wely

Tomorrow is the day for pancakes.

No, I'm not talking about National Pancake Day, though I'm sure there is one. It's Shrove Tuesday, the day before the beginning of Lent. A lot of Christians spend the six and a half weeks before Easter being reflective and penitent, sober and sombre. And that takes a lot of calories.

Actually, the church calendar is full of feasts and fasts, and the alternating rhythm of same can be a real anchor in the slipstream of time. Fasts give way to feasts, such as Lent yielding to Easter, but hungry, inventive humanity found ways to make sure the day before the fasts was as full of fat and savor as they could manage. Let's run right up to the boundaries full tilt before we have to stop and walk. Hence the pancakes.

There are other traditions, parades, hi-jinx, general merriment. I like to take part in that rhythm musically. This year, you may have noticed, the weekly featured recording is from a fellow named Charles Louis Alfred Lefebre-Wely. It's a postlude he wrote for church, but it wouldn't be out of place at the circus. So before we go full Lent--actually, this year it's going to be full Beethoven, since I'm teaching a class on same--I thought this website could use more Lefebre-Wely.

That's a joke my British readers will understand.

Some year I'd also like to drop in the Schumann Carnaval. Somewhere I have a recording from my junior Recital, over a quarter century ago, but it's not digitized and I probably wouldn't like the playing anyhow. In the meantime, let's enjoy some joie-de-vivre  with our pancakes will we observe one of a myriad pleasant little customs our species has devised to help us hurtle successfully around the sun.

Sortie in Eb: by Charles Louis Alfred Lefebre-Wely

[if you missed it, the rest of the weekly lineup is available right here]

Friday, March 1, 2019

Here's a Guy who gave them tunes they could sing

Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck ought to be the patron saint of musicians trying to survive as musicians. It's true, he arrived a little early to understand the precarious life of modern arts organization, of radio pledge drives or symphonic marketing, and his circumstances--that of a gifted musician trying to make a living in a situation where the jobs were not plentiful and the road was not easy--was not unique, even for the 18th century.

I mean, if we want to pursue a really hard luck case we could vote for Bach's student Johann Ludwig Krebs, who couldn't get a position as organist for a while and then was literally (and I employ the term in its intended meaning rather than as a mere flavor particle)--literally working for food. And only that. That was all he got paid, in an era where getting paid in food was not entirely unusual (part of Bach's salary was in wood and beer).

But Sweelinck did not have an easy road either, and I happen to be playing a piece of his this weekend for a church prelude so why not talk about him? He is regarded as the founder of the North German organ school so he is a very important fellow for organists, and while he started off being mentored by a friendly priest, said priest was forcibly removed a year into Sweelinck's job when the Protestants took over the town.

It could have been worse. In an effort to distinguish themselves from all things Catholic, Protestants would often destroy the church organ (too ostentatious: God likes all things plain, they thought), often with axes. Here, the town council spared the instrument.

They even engaged Sweelinck to play it. It was determined that the new hymns which were to be sung during the services were unknown to the congregation and someone would therefore need to teach them. Sweelinck thus wrote a number of pieces in which the new hymns were the subject of variations. He played them as preludes before the service.

During the service the congregation were on their own. Apparently the Protestant God couldn't handle the complexity of an instrument filling in harmony with the people's singing. So they sang unaccompanied.

But Sweelinck had a way to live, and to share his music. And he was performing a vital function for the common people, one important solution that is generally noted when objections to the existence of snobby and culturally useless art are thrown around, as Ms. Gerston noted via Monday's blog. He may have been asking them to listen, but that was so that they could sing, later. It wasn't meant to leave them behind, but to invite them to be a part of the music.

Maybe the townsfolk merely put up with the variations for the sake of the unadorned tune. In the case of this week's selection, though, it seems to me fairly obvious in all four of the sections how the tune goes. It's sort of a shame we won't be singing it during the service, but I don't pick the hymns. This is one of the rare weeks we are singing tunes with which most folks will be familiar, anyhow.

Here is a bit of Sweelinck, adorning a hymn that translates to "To God in the Highest Alone Be Glory." I've used an older type of tuning (In case you found a bit of it odd) and it is tuned nearly a half step higher than modern ears are used to, as was the case with North German organs of that era.


Monday, February 25, 2019

What She Said!

The great thing about being young and having a voice is that you can tilt at windmills.

A musician and critic named Jennifer Gerston came across my suggested articles feed on my phone the other day at lunch. I stopped to read it and found it well-written and interesting. Better, I agreed with it. You can check it out here.

I have long found it annoying that classical music is being marketed as something for relaxation, rather than something for actually listening to. It strikes me that the greatest musical minds of many countries and centuries just might have something to offer beyond effervescent sonic scents while we doze off after a long day.

But I'm afraid I know exactly why they are marketing the music this way. That is because it works. People are consumers. More than that, they are wired to want the greatest bargain, the most bang for the buck, the easiest way to achieve the most. Actual listening, or worse, learning, requires time and effort, and there is really no solid route to grabbing power (can you think of a more prevalent human motivation?) by understanding art. On the other hand, the people who have historically had any art in their lives at all tend to be folks who are not exactly struggling for survival. Their problems tend to be things like feeling stressed out because they are busy and have to deal with other jerks like themselves all day. Sorry, was that a little too candid?

What they are looking for is a way to relax. So the advertising geniuses decided to give them what they want.

Is that any favor to Brahms? No. Of course not. That isn't what the music is for at all. Not that it doesn't sometimes have relaxing properties, but that it is so much more. But there is a long, long history of human beings refusing to admit the properties of anything beyond what it can do for their immediate needs, and this is just one tiny example. Advertising is the art of the possible.

There are some who go beyond this model, of course. They are a minority, but they are there. The majority of the people who "listen" to classical music, though, don't really listen. They have it on in the background at work, at home, and they don't really notice it. And the moment some composer dares to get loud enough to be noticeable they turn down the volume.

Classical music organizations know this. They know that only a small fraction of their listeners are actually listeners--that is, committed enough to really care about what they are offering. And they know they can't survive on just those people alone. So they cast their nets wide--wider, anyway--and come up with music as a sleep aid.

None of this is meant as a rebuttal to what Ms. Gerston is saying. She's right about what the music should be--really, what it is, and how it ought to be treated. In the real world, she's not going to get what she wants anymore than I am, but I applaud her effort.

Besides, if some of you want to take her words as a challenge, great! I may seem cynical about all this, but in the end, if we look around, we see arts organizations teetering on the edge of disaster, and the vast majority of mankind spending more of their time on longstanding human pursuits like slaughter and jealousy and anger and misery. And if we go back 100 years we'll see pretty much the same thing. And I would bet, in 100 years' time, too. Disaster has always been at hand, particularly for the arts. There has been gloom and doom aplenty. This is, in fact, the norm. And that should be oddly comforting. Because if we wait for classical music to become a favorite pastime, we'll not only be waiting a long time, we'll be missing the point, which is that art is valuable regardless of whether you can bottle and sell it to the masses, as a soporific drug or anything else that promises a cure to what ails you.

My point is, this has always been a fool's errand. And a minority pursuit. And it has somehow managed to survive. One day, if humankind ever grows up a little, pursuit of the arts may even become popular (as an actual pursuit). Meanwhile, there are some humans out there doing amazing things. and some folks are even listening to them. I would submit that our lives are better for it.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Dancing about Architecture

There are days I'm not sure I'm up to writing anything useful about music.

And then there are the days I'm REALLY not sure of it.

It isn't just the cold air, and grey skies, the tickle in the back of my throat (though it is these), it is the thought that civilized humans have been having for a long there any point in trying to capture in words experiences which have been conveyed in sounds? And if it is so easy to translate one medium to the other, wherefore the sounds?

Or, as Elvis Costello aptly put it, is it an entirely foreign way to approach things in the first place, explicating one art form by the use of another? What he said was that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture."

Indeed. And, leaving aside those transcendental experiences that certainly can't be captured in any format but the one that gave rise to them in the first place, isn't a parade of words just a way to kill a good moment, explain the joke, pin down the inexpressible, ruin the mystery, make it seem too much like...homework?

And yet, as tempting as it is (and irreplaceable) to simply experience, and then be silent about it, there is one asterisk to add. That is that if the process is unveiled, the mystery explained, the joke analyzed, the unusual brought to light--IN WORDS--then maybe the next time there will be a greater understanding on the part of the listener, a chance that something will be noticed, relished, with greater intensity than before, simply because listening is a skill that can be cultivated.

You certainly wouldn't have approached this blog entry without a guide of some sort in your past. Somebody taught you to read, and to appreciate words, their sounds, their meaning, the way they are wrought, puns, alliteration, meter, all the things that make communicating in words so interesting, not to mention useful. We wouldn't insist that the marks on the page are about only what we can get out of them without presuming to have to know something first, and we might argue that perhaps it is better to know more than less. Then with each passing year a little more is added to the way we can extract substance from apparently lifeless squiggles. Each time, every person, experiences them a little differently.

In the end, explanation doesn't kill the greater mystery. The lesser one, maybe. If your idea of Mozart is that he just took dictation from God without having to think about what he was writing, or that sounds are just pretty and have no structure to be labored over, understood, appreciated, savored...well, you might lose some of your immature fantasies. They will be replaced by others much closer to reality, and filled with far more adventurous content.

In the meantime, joyful listening!

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Taking the best way out

Are you a stick person or a carrot person?

That is, are you more motivated by fear or reward?

Now suppose you have a large piece of music to learn by Friday. Do you jump right to the most difficult spot and try to work that out first or do you skip the hard parts and try to learn all of the easy stuff?

The argument for the latter is usually this: as long as this is a piece you can actually play, there is usually only a limited amount of difficult material, but it can be a real morale crusher if, after several days of trying to learn a new piece, or what's worse, a deadline, you are working on the same three lines. I learned in college the fine art of skipping the second page because it was hard and discovered that by the end of the first day I actually had a grip on pages 1 and 3 through 9 (the end of the piece). That made me feel pretty good about the way things were going and allowed me to really zero in on that second page, confident that once I mastered it I would know all of it. It felt sort of irresponsible to just blip on by, but I realized that, had I tried to stick it out I might have felt pretty deflated in that I hadn't gotten very far into a long piece, and, as it turned out, the rest was not so difficult after all. Sometimes the hardest part is on page two.

On the other hand, the hard parts will take longer to learn, and thus, it is better to start them early, thus giving ourselves the most possible time between now and the performance to deal with them. Even time spent away from the piano counts because our brains never quite stop working on those problems.

I have done it both ways. Usually running through the piece to triage the materials entire is a good way to start if you've never played something before, but the choice to master quantity vs. difficultly can be made on a number of factors, such as the time you have left, the chance you can fake or skip what you have to in a worst case scenario, and what is worse: discomfort with the whole vs. discomfort with a part. In other words, fear is a great motivator.

I've been working on several Beethoven sonatas at once for an upcoming class and have saved the most difficult for fairly late in the process (after picking through it a little to give it a bit of head start with my subconscious). Since I had chosen to play around six sonatas in about a month's time I was more worried about not getting to all the music. Also, I do not absolutely have to play any particular sonata if I don't want to, but I do have to fill about 10 hours of class time.

As always, though, my mantra is to start as early as possible. That way, you can even take breaks when Beethoven is coming out of your ears and do something else for a week. Coming up for air is also an important part of the work dynamic.

Monday, February 18, 2019

idom attic

Call it the windmill of the mind.

While petting our cat, which was lying purring on her other human in the bed, floated through my mind the phrase "take care of." As in, you are a lucky cat, because you have two humans who love you and take care of you.

Then I wondered why we use the word take. Why not the word have. The Spanish find this a perfectly serviceable word to describe someone's age. It is not I AM 6 years old, but I HAVE six years. Like a possession. I also HAVE hunger, as if I had acquired that state, but might be dispossessed of it shortly.  Different languages put together different combinations of little words to try to get at things that are hard to reach linguistically. Particularly when it comes to prepositional phrases, where words like to and of might nearly get at the same thing, if from slightly different directions.

But to "take" care. Shouldn't we be giving it? Are we taking it away?

Maybe the care(s) of which we speak are the cares of life, the things that cause worry lines on the face. Negative things. therefore, taking them away, or taking them on, is a sign that we are in fact showing love.

It might also be that the thing we are taking is "care OF" as in, I am sending this postcard "care of" the person who owns the house the other person is living in.

This makes the taking a positive thing. I am not taking cares away, I am taking (having) "care of."

You can see where this sort of thing can really start to hurt your brain. And the more of these little phrases you think of, the more you realize what an illusion language is. Just like the stuff we are made of which consists of more nothing than something--little electrons swirling around nuclei--the sum of the words doesn't quite add up to what they are supposed to signify. You just have to "know what they mean." Which helps if you grew up using the language. Otherwise, you discover in short order that all of these idioms are strange ways to arrive at what they are trying to convey. In your own language, you might not have thought about it.

This is the odd thing about communication. Most of us do not think about it regularly, or at all. But it is one of the things that makes it so hard. This is try of any form of communication. It includes music. What does it all add up to anyway? (Ives queried.) "The voice of God" (he offered)-- but "The voice of the Devil, says the man in the front row." With a disagreement of that size, it is no wonder we can't communicate!

If you were wondering why more people are not authors and composers, or at least good ones, it is because most of us get our thoughts, our opinions, our ideas, at the retail level. We seldom examine them, put them together. Our minds are not little IKEAS--not most of us. But if you felt this post to be a little weird, understand it to be a pre-requisite. If you really have something to say, and you want to say it...

welcome to our strange little world. And good luck.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Who's that again?

I was blurbing down the highway, which is the best time to be concentrating on classical music. In the car. On the Radio.

The station was in the middle of a piece of music. Since pieces of classical music can sometimes take hours, this was not so unusual. But I wanted to know something about the piece. Specifically, who was playing the piano. I'd heard the music about a billion times before, so that wasn't an unknown. But who was playing it?

Unfortunately, I thought that bit too loudly. Then a sophisticated bit of AI in the radio antennae must have penetrated the tinfoil hat I wasn't wearing. It said, hmmm, he wants to know who the pianist is. This information was relayed to the on-air personality, who waited the necessary 25 minutes until the piece was concluded, and then, just to make it fair, made sure I was in the middle of a tight turn between a semi and a bus going through a tunnel over a patch of ice so I really needed both hands on the wheel and couldn't turn up the radio. She chose just that moment to quickly mumble the name of the pianist as the first two words of the sentence while her voice was still warming up and gaining pitch and volume. She then relayed the name of the piece and the composer, which I already knew, at full volume and more drawn out. She was smiling as she said this, knowing she had won again.

We've played this game before. Usually I want to know some bit of insider information that the radio people are convinced that people do not want to know, which makes it easy. They just leave it out altogether. Such as, if the piece was originally written for piano and then orchestrated by somebody else, or the particular opus or catalog number so you know just which of Scarlatti's 500 piano sonatas in D major you just heard. They must figure that most people only want to hear the name of some long-dead Italian bloke and the word "sonata" and then they can get on with their day. Which sonata it is obviously doesn't matter unless you are planning to look for it.

In case what I want to know is less specialized information, the rules of the game are that the announcer must quickly blurt out the relevant information before I have time to turn up the volume, as their microphones are much softer then the music. By the time I get to the knob they can then go to commercials, which according to the Geneva Convention must be 5 times as loud as everything else. They got this as a concession after demanding too much humane treatment in other areas.

The game has gotten more evenhanded recently. Now you can go online to find listings of much of the music. However, if a local person is on the air what usually happens is that they list the first few items, and by the time they get to the piece you just listened to there is the ubiquitous "music continues...." If it is the national feed you might not experience the joy of these words. Usually you can find the information you want. Unless it involves an arranger, an arrangement, or a catalog number. And if you want to know who was playing the 3rd horn part you are definitely out of luck.

I try to soothe myself by suggesting that I'll probably have forgotten to write it down by the time I get out of the car anyhow. And that the concert patrons in Peoria will never know what I didn't remember to play for them because somebody mumbled.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Know Thyself

We've been establishing for the past few weeks that practicing can be a royal pain in the backside. Can you take it?

Practicing can also be pleasurable. But that depends on you. In order to make it that way you basically have to be expecting it to turn out that way.

The famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes frequently stunned his colleagues by finding evidence that they had no idea was even there. When asked, he simply said he found it "because I was looking for it."

On the other hand, many of us experience politics as a team sport. If the other side says something, we've already decided it's a dumb idea and we hate it before we've even bothered to learn about it.

I suppose all of this could just be a fancy way of saying we need an attitude adjustment. For instance, if somebody we like says the same exact "stupid" thing, we are more likely to go looking for a friendly way to interpret the words or even find profound meaning in them. We are "looking" for what we wish to find.

So yes, it helps if you are expecting practice to be enjoyable on some level. But more than that, you are going to be working with yourself, being both teacher and student, for some large period of time. It helps to develop a friendly working relationship! And beyond that, whether you have an experienced teacher who knows how to teach you to practice for all the days they are not there to run you through your paces themselves, how do you approach yourself? How do you deal with that unknown quantity that is your own jumble of psychological responses, desire, drives, avoidances, denials, motivations, pleasures, pains, good and bad memories--you, who ostensibly know yourself better than anybody, how do you get that person from point A to point B. What is it that you want, and how are you going to get yourself to achieve that?

This is where a real working knowledge of yourself could come in handy. I have found, working with students, that depending on my approach, much can be gained or lost. One moment I seem to have a really less-than-stellar student on my hands, and the next they can seem like a genius. What made them "get it" when I approached the subject one way as opposed to when I approached it the other? This requires real flexibility in teaching. And it isn't just limited to "teachers."

You've got six days between lessons (usually). That makes you the teacher. And the student. What are you made of?

We'll try to figure that out next week.

Monday, February 11, 2019

hurrah, humanity!

Many of us would have a much better life if we spent more time being grateful for things. It's Monday morning. I'll go first.

I just spent an enjoyable afternoon in the living room of somebody I've never met before, listening to a concert of wonderful music by some terrific performers. Those performers were partly friends of mine, partly people I barely know, and one that I had never met. The music was written by people who are mostly, or all dead, and who lived thousands of miles away in different countries. They had no idea their music was going to be performed on this occasion but they lent it to us anyhow.

Now given the horrible kinds of things our species of capable of doing to its own members, those of other species, its environment, and so on, it seems good to reflect on how we, apparently alone among the earth's living creatures, can coordinate and agree to meet at a specific time and place, for the purpose of making pleasurable sounds, or enjoying said sounds, and also cookies and conversation. Some create music, some recreate music, some organize its production, and some show their enthusiasm for its continued existence.

It is, on the one hand, a very strange thing to do. But we have two hands, and we can clap with them. Such applause may seem simple and naive, or unnecessary. Or maybe it hits you like a breath of fresh air. In any case, aren't we something sometimes?

Now go back to your drudgery. And sometime in the midst of your dull routine, punctuated by news of the awful, take a moment to think up something else that is truly bizarre among the customs of humanity, and truly wonderful. I'll be here.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Getting to Nirvana

Practice is suffering.

We established that last week.

We also decided that, if done well, that suffering can be lessened because you will be so engrossed in what you are doing that you won't be noticing how difficult it is. And because when you practice well you cut down on the amount of time it takes to learn stuff, hence, less time to suffer.

But you can't make it stop. It's going to be difficult some of the time. And in order to learn how to deal with it, you have to develop the discipline to be miserable for a period of time and just keep going. You get better at that the more you do it, therefore, suffering doesn't just build character, it builds perseverance. So you are trying to learn how not to suffer and yet welcoming such tests of fortitude at the same time. Sound about right?

I thought I had better summarize last week's blog because it could have been a bit complicated.

For me, the worst time to be working on something is when it is fairly new. Not completely new, necessarily: during the time you are discovering a piece you've never seen or heard before the very sounds the composer put on the page may seem so fascinating and new that you don't mind your slow, halting attempts to realize them, It's what comes immediately after that which is hard. Now you have to try to assimilate the materials. That generally takes a lot of repetition, and can really wear out your mind fast. Eventually, say several days in, the work gets easier. Now you basically know the materials and can start making music out of them. You have control over the notes and can play them the way you want to. Practice starts to be about how I want to play that Eb (with what kind of touch or expression), not whether I can get my finger there in time.

At that point, practicing that particular piece become pretty pleasurable. It's the getting there that is the hard part.

It could just be me for whom the early stages and the late stages of practice are so diammetrically different. But I've noticed something else:

Let's say it's just a few days before a concert, or it's the week of the church service and I haven't even looked at the postlude yet. I start in. It's hard. I'm pretty stressed out because there isn't much time. I should have started on this thing earlier! I spend a pretty miserable day drilling away. But by the middle of the next day the ice melts and suddenly I'm no longer worried. In fact I'm even beginning to have fun with the piece.

That was pretty intense, but fortunately it was short. Now suppose I have plenty of time to prepare and I don't go at it with the same panicked intensity. You know what happens?

It spreads out the misery, that's what. It's as if there is a predestined amount of unhappiness that it will require from you until you get to the point of familiarity. And you can do it in one short, intense burst, or a longer, less hellish manner, but either way, you can't escape it. And basically, you will pay the same price in quantified misery either way. Weird, huh? But maybe that's just me.

The point being that I've noticed this happening over and over and I expect it to happen. I expect to feel anxious and unhappy and as if I will never get the piece learned in time, and then to do it anyway. It's just a part of the psychological element of practicing. And realizing it is probably what keeps me going when many folks, for whom these feelings of worry and failure are a complete surprise, take these symptoms seriously and decide to give up.

They don't go away, either. They are there each time I start a new piece of music. And they are there to be conquered, every time. Knowing this dynamic doesn't make it easier. But it does keep me going.

Because I've seen what is on the other side. Many times. It doesn't make it that much easier to keep pushing, but somehow...makes it possible.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Filling in the Gaps

An aunt of mine once observed that she believed I used my website the way some peopled did scrap booking, collecting memories and artifacts and putting them together as a kind of diary of things personally enjoyed.

I didn't care much for the comparison. I felt that sharing music and information and ideas about that music was really not the same as the person who blogs about their favorite bands or their favorite food or says this movie or that movie is really cool you should go see it.

But there is a deep autobiographical connection to the things on this website. This is particularly true of the recordings. After all, these are all pieces that I've played, if only briefly, to record them. They represent a kind of musical places-I've-been. They aren't there to say, look at me, I can play these pieces, though I figure it can't hurt if somebody recognizes that I can play well and that leads to some kind of opportunity. But they do represent a musical journey. They are what I've been playing either professionally or for recreation over the last seven or eight years. And they are an invitation to journey with me.

I have a tendency toward completeness. A few years ago I recorded the complete Mendelssohn organ sonatas. I've attempted the complete organ works of Michael Praetorius, the entire Mass for the Parishes of Couperin. So far I've only recorded the first 15 piano sonatas of Haydn (there are 52). And at times, while exploring new corners of the literature, ever finding different composers and genres, I've had the urge to look back, and turn again to the familiar. And also to have my favorite pieces represented, pieces that are, or were, important to me for whatever reason.

There is one problem with that. The website didn't come along until 2002, and I wasn't able to really get recording until 2011 for various reasons. By then I already had finished graduate school and was in my thirties. The early parts of my life, and with it, some pretty huge hunks of piano literature, such as the complete Mozart piano sonatas, say, were over, and had, for the most part, not been recorded.

It's hard to go back and fill in those gaps, especially when you are busy documenting what is happening now, never mind being busy with other things entirely. But from time to time I manage to do it. Sometimes I don't even realize I'm doing it.

I'm going to be teaching a course on Beethoven next month. I haven't played much of his music these last several years and it is about time I traveled back this way. I spent the last two weeks of January in a panic, realizing that I was planning to play about a half-dozen sonatas in a period of five weeks, and had just over a month to prepare them all. At my advanced stage of learning and technical ability, one Beethoven sonata is not so difficult--I can learn it in a few days, most likely (though the difficulty level of the sonatas varies quite a lot). But to do 6--or 7.... As I've said before, successful people panic earlier than the others.

It's February, and already I've gotten reasonably familiar with most of the "curriculum." You'll be hearing about them as March approaches. And I'll be playing them for you.

Today I recorded a movement of the "Pathetique" Sonata. I wasn't even planning to play this one in class. It doesn't seem to represent one of the four aspects of Beethoven's musical personality that I'm going to focus on for the class, and I imagine that if there is one Sonata that half of my students will be able to play for themselves, this is it. But I had a spare moment the other day and decided the second movement could handle recording even if I hadn't looked at it in years. Then I thought I'd have some fun with the finale. It was. I was hooked again.

I played this piece in high school. In those days I was in the preparatory department at the Cleveland Institute of Music. I remember playing it in a class recital, the entire sonata.

I don't mind telling you, I am a quarter of a century removed from that occasion and I can play that young man clear under the table and then some.

Apparently there has been more to this Beethoven mania than I realized. I must have played three or four sonatas in high school, and a few in college, in addition to the concertos (most of which I learned on my own). Then, for many years, nothing. Beethoven vanished from my life.

But like an archaeologist removing a layer of sediment to discover something important in the strata beneath, something has been found. And what a wonderful reservoir was waiting in the deep caverns beneath the surface.

This course is about Beethoven, obviously. But it is always better when we are invested ourselves. I imagine I will be able to connect with the students on this account also. Some of them have already told stories of their encounters with the Bard from Bonn, and have probably played this very sonata. It is over 200 years old now, that piece. It has worked its magic on a lot of people.

Count me in.

Just a note: each week, is new with recordings and articles. In a few weeks, the recording I made the other day but haven't had time to post will probably make its way to the listening archive, and/or become the week's featured recording. In any case, look for lots of Beethoven to start making its way to the site. New editions appear every Friday.

Friday, February 1, 2019

True to Life

If you regularly read this blog or know me personally you might remember that I don't care for the month of February. I complain about it every year, which is convenient if you are writing a blog that publishes three times a week because when February comes around you know exactly what to do: kvetch about the cold and the snow and the darkness and the long, grinding winter in the Midwestern United States.

I don't pretend this is entertaining. Nonetheless, it can be. A few years ago I wrote a blog about a phenomenon called Groundhog Day, which is on the 2nd day of February each year. I still think it is one of my more amusing blogs. Now that I've moved to within an hour or so of Puxatawny, PA I've even considered driving out there to hear Phil's Goundhoggese for myself.

If you'd prefer not to have the full, gruesome experience, there is one of my favorite movies, in which weatherman Phil Conners, played by Bill Murray, gets condemned to live the strange holiday over and over. "Goundhog Day" the movie will no doubt air on a few TV stations over the weekend, and some of you won't mind watching it over and over as well.

I've often wondered why there was no sequel to "Groundhog Day," though I am glad they left it alone. It was a one-of-a-kind movie with a unique concept. It's just that, whenever there is a successful offering, Hollywood doesn't know well enough to let it just be. (Murray is starring in another sequel to the Ghostbusters franchise for 2020 and while I applaud their restraint in waiting so long to make it I wonder whether it will be a good story or just a way to make money of nostalgia.)

It isn't that such a film could not in theory be interesting. There is plenty about life on February 3rd that might provide Phil with a lot to do. Readjusting to a life in which days are not endlessly repeated until you get them just right could be disorienting after a hundred reboots, and none of them would have the mythic status that the Puxatawny festival would have acquired in his life. It's just that a movie based on the 3rd of February would violate two rather big rules. It would not be likely to have a happy ending, and we wouldn't be able to see it coming.

It is easy to see, after a handful of times that Phil wakes up on the same day in the same bed and has to do it over that, no matter how he rebels, whines, finds inventive ways to kill himself, tries random experiments in cruelty, and gradually, more and more in kindness, that the Power That Is just isn't going to let this go until he learns a very important lesson and reforms himself. Like many successful works of art, the recipient can see the Goal which must be achieved almost from the beginning. The outlines are clear.

My wife and I read "The Chimes'' over the holidays. It is the book Charles Dickens wrote for Christmas (actually New Year's Day) the year after he published "A Christmas Carol," another story in which the redemption of the protagonist drives the narrative. Unfortunately, "The Chimes" is a mess. In an attempt to shock the reader with major plot twists, it is not easy to tell whether the main character is in need of redemption (he is), whether he is in the past, present, or future, or if he is even alive for a large part of the story. Neither of us felt like we had a very firm grasp of what was really going on, never mind where we were supposed to be headed.

These sorts of experiments can doom a work of art. They are, it would seem, too much like reality, in which we sometimes wander from day to day without a certain direction in major segments of our lives. We generally prefer to have a sense of direction, and we would like our art to mirror that ideal version of our lives.

February can be a wasteland. Although, as I hinted last year, some of the Februaries in my life have been successfully negotiated because of important events which provide clear goals (and stress) to make them seem shorter and more meaningful.

It is interesting how we humans manage time. Music is fundamentally about time management and if it is experienced as a striving toward a goal (a major thrust in Western Music) it is often the composer's task to clarify what that goal is. Would that February, with all of its inertail hibernatory temptings, could take us to that Epiphanic Val Halla more often.

Or, to clarify, may we know where we are going, and enjoy getting there.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Musicians are born to practice as the sparks fly upward

Continuing our obsession with practice and all of its ugly ramifications, I wish today to offer this paradoxical thought.

I have spent years engaged in the science and/or art of practice. The study of how to practice is in its own way rewarding, and it is certainly a profitable enterprise. Anyone who wants to master their instrument needs to know how to practice well. That doesn't just mean practicing a lot. It means spending that time wisely and well. It is directed effort, not simply effort.

When I was growing up studies kept coming out about how Japanese kids were eating American kids' lunches with regard to math. And the typical response from American legislators and policy crafters was "we need more math class." It was not, as it should have been, "we need better math instruction," because that would have required that we put a lot more effort into how we went about the business of this important branch of human knowledge. It is also unnecessary to add that nobody (among the politicians) bothered to explore the symbiotic relationship between the arts upon which Japan also placed a great deal of importance and those math classes which, in the U.S., were being added in place of all of those arts classes that were being cut to make way for them.

The simplistic approach to any problem is simply "more, more, more." Which is why I sometimes get tired of hearing music teachers telling their charges to practice--without telling them how. Of course, much of this is context driven. If most kids aren't even spending time with their instrument to begin with, then it is a victory simply to get them to practice at all. This is unfortunately where the battle line is drawn much of the time. Good practice is apparently a pie in the sky luxury. But if you are bothering to read this at all let's assume you are one of those relative few who want to do more than simply put in your time.

And the paradox comes in when we realize that, if we are engaged, or better yet, engrossed in what we are doing we may lose track of time altogether and not experience it as tedium. When we are really about this business of practice it isn't a drudgery in which the passage of time seems to slow to a crawl and we spend 90% of the time wishing it would be over. Instead, with every technique we learn, every trick, every diagnostic tool, every internalized habit from our teachers, when in effect each practice is a lesson in which we are both teacher and student and are so full of desire to get the piece learnt well that it is a pleasure instead of a burden to take that piece in our metaphorical teeth and thrash it around like a cat does with a cardboard box (thanks, Rosie, for providing that illustration), our whole relationship with practice changes and we are not suffering any longer.

Under that rubric the teachers who simply send you out into the word after a weekly lesson and tell you to practice are sending you to suffer and the ones who teach you how are showing you how to actually make it fun. Promises like that certainly ought to get a few students to read blogs like these, no?

Here is the problem with that, however. As much as we would all love to enjoy what we are spending so much time doing, I don't know anybody, doing anything, who has never had days when it seemed like a drudgery. You could be a major league baseball player, playing a game you love for a living, and I can guarantee that, being required to play 162 games every year, whenever they are scheduled, sometimes on little sleep, or after long travels, to a high standard, is going to mean sometimes you really don't feel like it. Now imagine any other job in the world that is less glamorous. But I'm sure you don't have to because you have one. And if it's school you probably don't love every minute of that, either. Do you love both math and gym? How about social studies and English? What about the cafeteria food?

None of us can escape having to do things that are not fun. Life is endless, uninterrupted bliss for no one. Discipline is just that.

Effective practice, once achieved, has the pleasant side effect of cutting down on that. But it can never kill it completely. Sooner or later, you just won't be having fun. And it is a vitally important skill to be able to deal with that head on and keep going when it is difficult. This is a skill that you develop by doing it often and by being able to deal with not enjoying yourself at the time. You learn to suffer. And keep suffering. And be able to suffer longer, and harder.

Some music teachers online have been trying to get their students to simply practice. They don't say anything more than that. It is easy advice for them to give. It is also easy to want to step into the void and try to flesh out how when so many don't seem to know (including younger versions of myself).

But it is also important to simply show up and do it. And if it is hard, so be it. It is going to be hard. This is a test of your character. Can you do it even though you thought it would be fun and now it isn't? This is when many people quit. What do you have in you? Can you keep going?

If you want to get there from here, you are going to have to. There is no other way.

Deal with it.

Monday, January 28, 2019


No matter how famous a particular artist gets there is always some small sliver or their work that is almost universally recognized among the general public. The rest simply doesn't make the cut.

For Beethoven, one of those famous bits is the first movement of the so-called "Moonlight" Sonata. It is possible for amateurs to play, which is one major reason for its success. It also provides a strong dose of atmosphere to the generations of young romantics that have abused its steady triplet pulse ever since, and that same predictable rhythmic writing has not only made it manageable for the fingers but easy on the mind. Not to mention the cache of a thrilling nickname and programmatic whispers of thwarted love (he did, after all, dedicate the Sonata to a female).

But the Sonata is in three parts, and those of us who desire to see things whole would not willingly let things stand as they did last week with but one of those parts completed. And so, dear listener, I offer you the second part. It is in the style of a dance, faster than the first, and rather too full of day-lit jubilation to fit well with the appellation "Moonlight."

It is also a bit harder for the young ones to play.

Oh well. Perhaps it will not change your life. But it is short, and I think it is the perfect interlude between what was and is to come. Beethoven took the unusual step of instructing the pianist to "attack" this second movement without pausing at the end of the first. So imagine that this has been a very short week and that this week's offering comes right on the heels of the last.


[listen to the 2nd movement: Scherzo from "Moonlight Sonata" by Ludwig van Beethoven]

Wednesday, January 23, 2019


I was trying to get myself out the door on a cold, grey, January morning. It wasn't easy. I didn't feel like going anywhere or doing anything. But I've still got things to do.

Look, you wrote a nice little piece of music yesterday, and now if you go to church you can make a recording of it and share it with people in only a small amount of time. Plus there is a nice Steinway that needs company and a large organ, and a beautiful space and great people. It certainly beats staying home and being depressed because of the cloud cover. 

It can be easy to succumb to negative thoughts at times. The trick is to turn them around, and if there are no external stimuli acting on you to do it, you have to make the decision to do it yourself.

Wednesdays this semester we are going to be talking a lot about practicing. And it occurs to me that an awful lot of it is simply psychological. That, before worrying about technique, we have to get ourselves there, and we know it will be a challenge, but the question is whether the result will be worth it. And that question depends largely on how we frame it. What is going on in our heads? Is it sufficiently positive to get us to work? How about, incentive driven with a dash of realism and humor? That's my formula. It works for me, most times. And not just at the piano.

It's the same thing I do when I'm running. Come on, this is the last hill! Or, after this admittedly steep hill, you've got an entire mile of down hill running coming up. Or, you can think about it all you want, but this is where you really earn the chance to run marathons. Right now. And you. Will. Do it!

One of my most remembered pep talks occurred when I was a finalist in a concerto competition some 25 years ago, and was trying to psyche myself up for the finals, which were right after dinner and only a few minutes after we found out who made the cut. You spend how many hours sleeping, or eating, or standing in line, or going grocery shopping, or I don't know what? And how many minutes out of all of that routine do you get the opportunity to go out on a stage and play this fabulous music in front of a live crowd, and just knock em out? Right now. That's when. Go for it. These next 15 minutes are your 15 minutes. They're rare. They are wonderful. You get to really live now. Be alive! Do it!

Or something like that.

My internal coach has given a lot of great speeches over the years. And I'm sure it's made a lot of difference. Some people may not have one. But I haven't got the money to pay somebody else to do it. Though at various times I may get encouragement from someone else, there are times when nobody else is around and you just have to soldier on yourself. Or not. And the difference might just be the quality of the coaching. So I take justifiable pride in some of the great speeches I've given myself over the years. Not least because it gives me something to concentrate on besides how hard it is to do the thing I'm trying to do.

Of course, like anything, it improves with practice. The more you do it, the better you do it.

So....get out there and...psyche yourself up!

Monday, January 21, 2019

The Super Blood Wolf Blog Entry

Did you see the Super Blood Wolf Moon last night?

I've gotten fairly blase in regards to special celestial occurrences, having already seen a Super Moon (pretty cool actually), and a blood moon (which looked strangely radioactive), and I'm not even sure what constitutes a Wolf Moon. But to mash them all up together made it sound like Hollywood was in on it, and maybe Anthony Hopkins was going to be playing the moon.

Anyhow, I fell asleep before the midnight showing. They never ask me what time is good before scheduling these lunar eclipses. I'm still sore about the solar eclipse that was supposed to happen when I was five, but, due to an unusually perfectly normal bout of cloud cover, was not visible in my home town. No worries, they said. The next one is due in 35 years.

I have a recital this afternoon, and I thought, for the sake of current events, I would try to play something special for the occasion. The most obvious choice for a classically trained pianist is to play the Moonlight Sonata. Beethoven didn't actually call it that. He called it a "sonata like a fantasy" which is basically like saying that it is a piece with a carefully designed plan which sounds like a piece without a carefully designed plan. It is a novel in stream of consciousness form, a building that doesn't seem like it could stand up, one genre pretending to be another.

His friends apparently did not appreciate the subtlety of the title anymore than the rest of you probably don't. One of them decided it reminded him of the moonlight over a particular lake. And since atmosphere sells better than architecture, not only did the title stick, it has become one of Beethoven's most popular pieces of music. It doesn't hurt that it is one of the few that amateurs can play. Well, the first part, anyway.

The music sold pretty well, but imagine if somebody had had the foresight to call it the "super blood wolf moonlight sonata."

I'll play it for you now, and, if it seems a little fast, remember that Beethoven wrote it in just two beats to a bar, not four, and that adagio was probably not so slow in those days. It does not, as one commentator put it, need to sound like a funeral march. And notice that the melody, the true melody, is still actually quite slow, and that the inexorable triplets at the start (and throughout) are only accompaniment, not the strokes of Big Ben.

The piece is, for all of Beethoven's chagrin at how popular it became, one of his unique achievements.

Listen to the first movement of the "Moonlight Sonata."

Friday, January 18, 2019

And a very merry Christmas to you at last!

This year, I've observed to persons in my immediate environment, has been probably the greenest Christmas in my life.  In addition to not snowing on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, the white stuff seems to have avoided the season completely. To the best of my recollection it snowed in Pittsburgh a few times in November, accumulating nicely, and remaining on the rooftops of the neighboring houses for a couple of weeks, and possibly as late as the first week of December. Then, nothing. From the time we put up our tree on the 6th of December, until the day before we took it down on January 12th, there wasn't a bit of snow.

Winter has returned this week, and we may even be due for a foot of snow this weekend.* This may partially account for the strange occurrence of my being able to write Christmas music in the off season. There have been several years when I vowed to finished pieces I hadn't managed to get written during the busy time of December and once the demands of the new year came these projects got squeezed out. But this time, somehow, a few things have gotten created. I have to work in between the cracks of other, more pressing projects, but as I have often noted, a multiplicity of things to do doesn't just make it hard to focus. It can also be imperative. The most important and deadline sensitive things I have going on these days wouldn't be possible to finish on time if I hadn't spent time and effort in earlier days getting some of the work done before I knew how important it would be later.

This is particularly true of composition, which, among many favorite similes, is a bit like fishing. You can't catch fish on demand. You can set yourself up for success by finding places the fish like to be, showing up at the right time, using a good lure, asking people where they've had success, even using a fish finder. But that's no guarantee that a particular cast will catch anything. So when, through a series of events, I slept poorly, and woke with the genesis of a piece of piano music in my head, I thought I'd better catch it while I could. It will come in handy next year when I need something to play for a particular occasion and it is already in my boat, waiting.

Since it is snowing outside I thought you might be in the mood for a little bit of Christmas music, if it is snowing where you are, and if you've also had to wait a month for it to do so. I don't normally share pieces I've written yesterday--this is the beta version, and I don't guarantee there won't be revisions, but it was easy to write down and so easy to play that I got it recorded quickly, before the storm that is on its way.

Enjoy. Or should I say, Rejoice!

[listen to "In Sweet Rejoicing"]   

*as of Saturday afternoon, the snow has entirely dropped from the forecast in favor of rain which has not been seen so far, either.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Smart practice: observation

My running route took me by the church one afternoon and I stopped in to get a drink from the fountain, and to rest. Someone was practicing in the social hall, and while I sat on the bench outside, I couldn't help but hear the old familiar patterns:

They were playing the entire piece all the way through each time. a few measures in, they kept making the same mistake in the melody line. I'm not sure they noticed. Five repetitions later it was still wrong.

A few minutes later there was a new mistake. One the opening left hand arpeggio, which had now become minor instead of major. It was early and obvious. I'll bet what was going through the person's head at that point was along the lines of #$@#%! Why Can't I get anything Right!!!!!! Unfortunately, that kind of emotional surge does exactly what we don't want it to do: burns the mistake into memory, as strong emotional states, whether positive or negative, tend to do. This time they backed up and started over. If you'd been there I'd have bet you a five that they would make the same mistake and you would be out five dollars.

I didn't say anything, of course, but I'm saying this to you in case you are a practitioner of the art of piano.  There are ways to vastly improve the way you practice. And since you obviously have to spend a lot of time doing it, wouldn't you rather be better at it? To achieve better results and to enjoy the time spent? I knew you would.

There was one thing that was admirable about this person and their practice. They were putting in the time. Nothing would have happened otherwise. But within that time many things happen. And I think for many practice time is experienced as a long drudgery, as simply playing the piece many times until the timer goes off and you can quit. Paradoxically, if you are able to get more mentally involved in the specifics of your practice, while you will be more tired more quickly, you also will spend less time wondering when it will be over. It is even possible, occasionally, to approach a state of fun, while practicing. Really!

Happy practicing. See you back here next week.

Monday, January 14, 2019

anonymous, or teacher's revenge

There was the time when my teacher wanted me to listen to a recording of a piece I was working on. I did, and at the next lesson he asked about it. Who was the pianist? I couldn't remember. He told me that he hoped that some day I made a recording and nobody could remember my name.

I think it is fair to say he has been avenged many times over by my freshman neglect. There is probably somebody somewhere in the world right now listening to me play the piano who has no idea who I am and does not care. Or  have an uphill battle to find out even if they did.

Back in the halcyon days before Google bought out Webalyzer, I could find out who in the world was listening to my music, what country they were from, what they listened to, how much of it they listened to, and whether or not they ever visited my web site.

The last part may seem like a bit of a head scratcher, until I explain that there are many services on the web which serve to connect listeners with whatever they want to listen to, without themselves providing any of the content. If somebody types in "Schubert," they provide lots of links to recordings of something by Schubert from all over the web. Hot links, we call them. This is because you can then listen to those files without ever leaving the host's website. You can then play the content from the site you--er, borrowed the content from, such as pianonoise, and never actually visit the site itself. They don't ask the webmasters' permission to include the files, they just gather them from all over the internet. I don't consider that particularly ethical, especially if they don't mention their source and give the listener at least a fair chance to go to that site if they liked the content, but it would be an entirely new epoch in human history if most people didn't do whatever they could get away with for their own benefit. 

At any rate, the bulk of my listeners come through these mega-sites, which, considering the recordings are free anyway, does at least mean my music is being shared with a larger public than I could get it to myself. And quite a few of these people might never be able to communicate with my written words anyway because they aren't from English speaking countries. For some reason, I noticed several years ago, I seem to be fairly popular in China.

At least, that is the way it was. Now that Google has taken over everything, I no longer have the ability to measure some of these things, and have a lot fuzzier idea about who is listening and to what. It is only when I go and look at the daily log files (which is a pain in the butt and is the reason there are analytics programs that are supposed to summarize all the information in easy chart form) that I get an idea that I might still have thousands of listeners after all. No idea where they are from anymore. Or whether they liked anything.

A lot has changed since the nineties, but much has not. Most human communication is still relatively anonymous. Of all the persons of history, few even have names. Most have their stories misrepresented, or told for the benefit of the tellers. Most authors never meet their readers, nor do their readers know anything about them. The bulk of the music on this site was written by people I'll never meet because they are dead. And although I am the odd fish who generally does some research to find out who these people were (and with age have developed a better capacity to store, and know about, the various names and biographies of the persons who bring the music to me), some of them still elude my sleuthing and remain anonymous. 

For example, who wrote this number, one of the oldest pieces on the site, composed around 1360, for the organ? None of us will ever know, though I'm glad they did. 

listen to Estampie from the Robertsbridge Codex by anonymous

If you haven't had your Monday morning coffee yet, you might be also.

Friday, January 11, 2019

You know, it, and stuff

I played something by George Muffat on the organ last weekend.

If you're curious, the piece was the sixth Toccata in F Major from his Apparatus Musicus, which despite the title, does not require the flexibility of a gymnast, but is a good group of pieces nonetheless. I played it a few years ago also, when I made this recording, and while it may not be the finest piece in the organ literature (despite what the editor of my edition may think) I can think of worse ways to spend nine minutes.


Generally, I do a certain amount of research into a composer and their works, particularly if I am writing program notes to go with the performance, but also because I am a curious person. Not that the research is always that scholarly: sometimes I haunt the library for books and articles, or go to the Grove Dictionary online, or....

I just went to Wikipedia, ok?

It's what I found there that was interesting. As of the 3rd of January, this is how the article opened:

Georg Muffat (1 June 1653 – 23 February 1704) was a Baroque composer and organist. He is most well known for the remarkably articulate and informative performance directions printed along with his collections of string pieces Florilegium Primum and Florilegium Secundum (First and Second Bouquets) in 1695 and 1698.

Did you get that? He is best known, says the author, for his performance instructions! Not his music, or his organ playing, but instructions to performers. I hope he isn't taking it too hard.

While that may seem trivial, I imagine there are a lot of string players in particular who are in his debt. A lot of composers tend to write the notes, and just assume the people around them will know how to play them. This is a relatively safe assumption. But suppose your music survives into another century, or travels to different countries where knowledge about the customary ways to approach music in your culture, or in your particular philosophical approach are not known. In that case, it really isn't a bad idea to have a detailed set of instructions, at least for those who want to play the music the way the composer intended, rather than just assuming they (the players) know that they are doing.

I've written about performance instructions before. Composers like Erik Satie, in the 20th century, often wrote whimsical instructions that often don't seem to make any sense. Before him, composers were sometimes making statements of nationalist pride simply by writing tempo markings and expression markings in their own languages instead of inclining to Italian.

In the baroque era, however, there were not that many detailed instructions to begin with. Bach often didn't leave any. Even his teaching method breaks off after a few pages and he remarks that the rest "can be transmitted orally."

It can't now, can it?

Muffat, on the other hand, may or may not have studied under the famous Jean-Baptist Lully, and must have taken really good notes, so that when it came time for his own compositions, he could give us a rather unique insight into an important corner of the literature that is too far removed from our own practices to safely assume we don't need the help.

So I take my metaphorical hat off to Mr. Muffat, one of a few outliers on whom musicologists can rely for useful information about the past, that foreign country where, we are told, people do things so differently.