Friday, August 16, 2019

Playing with fire

It's the eerie music that runs through the subconscious of every conservatory musician.The fear of injury.

Fingers are muscles. Muscles can be pulled. Strained. Stressed. And if not attended to, bad things can happen. Career ending things.

The problem being that the "attending to" part usually involves not using said muscles. Not practicing. This is a no-go for a lot of young folks trying to cram for an important performance. And when you are young they are all important performances. So they just go for it.

One very talented individual went for it. He was scheduled to play Bach's Goldberg Variations at a Conservatory Convocation. It was his last performance. For several years, anyway. Possibly for good. (don't know for sure)

I've seen the t-word happen to a few musicians who were my colleagues at the conservatory. It was usually very talented, very industrious ones. It didn't necessarily end their careers, but it may have sidelined them for a while.

See, the t-word is cumulative. Once you've got a full-blown case of it, even taking a break for months, or years, doesn't really work very well. Only an hour of practice can bring it roaring back. This is what makes it so frightening. So much that I call it the t-word.

If you're curious, it ends in -itis, and beings with "tendon." Shh! Don't say it out loud!

It usually announces its presence less than subtly. You can tell when your wrists are on fire, or your fingers feel stiff. That usually freaks me out, and I stop practicing right away. Once, in college, I was playing a Brahms concerto in which the cadenza involved a lot of accented notes with the pinkie finger of the left hand. I overdid the accents. I could feel it afterward. And I dialed it back for a few days.

Efficient practice, the kind where your fingers release into the keyboard exactly the way they are supposed to, tends to keep this sort of thing from happening. But practice a difficult passage with even a little bit of unnecessary tension in the hands, or try to stretch or pull the hand over a jump instead of rotating the wrist to get there, or fail to relocate the rest of your fingers to support the little fingers on the ends of your hands so that the pinkie just sticks out there like it is hailing a cab one too many times, and you'll be sorry. Not right away. You can usually get away with it for a day or to, but not for very long.

I was working on all four of the Chopin Ballades this week for a program in Pittsburgh next week. On short notice I was trying to cram 50 pages of music I haven't played in a quarter century. That is a good way to get hurt. I was aware of this. I was also aware that we have a vacation coming up and some enforced time away from the piano which would give time for the fingers to heal if I strained anything just a bit. But also fewer days to get the music ready.

Chopin can be really unforgiving on the fingers. Especially if your technical approach isn't spot on. And when you are just learning the notes, or trying to achieve speed perhaps a little too early, that can be dangerous.

It's good to know this, recognize the symptoms, and know when to back off. Being able to learn quickly also helps, and having the maturity not to panic at the thought of another recital without enough preparation time.

It's been a while since I felt any fire in my wrists, but one day last week it happened. The ending of that first ballade is a real challenge at performance speed! I threw a little too much caution to a little too much wind before I really understood how to move quickly among the forest of notes. The will is a wonderful thing, but it can also be a bit like a bull in a china shop. It was probably only a span of about 10 minutes that did the real damage--fortunately, it wasn't anything irreversible. For all its horrors, the t-word does give you time to decided whether to forge ahead and risk real injury, or to get out while all you've got is a minor strain. One day is not going to completely wreck your fingers in perpetuity.

My fingers could be feeling better, but they are doing fine--a little tired from their ordeal, but recovering. There is a time to cram and a time to be careful, and always a time to balance those two ends. I hope the cadre of students entering music schools all over the world this week are able to do that.

There is, of course, also mental practicing, slow practice, listening to recordings, and knowing when staying glued to the piano is getting you diminishing returns and a nice walk would be a good idea.

We live, we learn, and we achieve.  And we try to be able to live another day, with fingers and bodies and minds whole so we can experience the hearts and minds of all of those wonderful composers.

Careful out there, my friends.

Happy practicing.

The St. Paul Cathedral Pittsburgh concert is up at pianonoise radio this week. And of course, the homepage is new like it is every week. Enjoy!

Friday, August 9, 2019

Great Uncle Fred

Any relatives reading this might be surprised to learn that I have a great uncle Fred.

Actually, his full name is Fred Chopin.

He's not a blood relative, but in matters musical he's probably been more of an influence on me than many of them.

I didn't realize to what extent this was true until I started playing his music again recently. You dedicated readers know that for much of the life of this blog and its accompanying website, the piano has had to vie with, or even take a back seat to, the organ. That's also been true for my activities as a composer, though there is less evidence online for that. And there have been various jobs, gigs, detours, hats--I've basically taken the long way around. While starting off as a classical pianist, the trail has gotten much more complicated than that. But once again, I seem poised to make my way back to the classical piano literature. Fred is there to help me recover that strand of my DNA. He is also there to remind me just how much of it has gotten absorbed into my own music--technique, compositions, improvisations, all of it. Who knew?

When I was at the conservatory the halls were filled with people playing Chopin. A little too often, I though. Not because I didn't like Chopin, but because I believe you can overdo anything. I once wrote that Chopin had died of consumption in 1849 and "is still dying of it." This was my brilliant observation in the margins of a piano literature exam. My just out of school instructor didn't appreciate comments like it. He wrote "STOP IT!!!!!!" I think he may have also been a bit high strung.

It was difficult to want to play Chopin with the place always ringing with the sounds of a few over-popular measures on endless loop from all the practicing, but I managed to eak out a little. I was more interested in Mozart and Brahms in those days. But I did, at some point, look at the four Ballades. I don't remember playing them for very long, and I'm sure I never played one on a recital. But perhaps I gave them more of a run than I thought. At least I am suspicious of just how quickly I (re)learned them these last two weeks. That's usually because somewhere in the back of the brain, some relevant material still lingers in storage from long ago, which in this case is a quarter of a century. Of course I was also young and my brain was a sponge. So who knows? Who remembers?

Anyhow, I'm enjoying my time with Fred this month. I've decided to play some at Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh in two weeks. It's a bit daunting to take on 50 pages of Chopin in just a few weeks, but I try not to worry about that and just focus on how nice it is just to get back to the piano, slow practicing and reinforcing music from long ago.

Meanwhile, it is like visiting an old friend. A student recently recalled when I had observed in class that each composer had their own signature, their own musical traits, or obsessions, or methods, or sometimes a favorite constellation of notes. It's an observation that might strike some people as a surprise, but only if you don't have a favorite author or composer or painter or some kind of artist. Then you start to recognize stylistic habits. Something that begins to sound like Chopin, or the 19th century, or Eastern Europe. That recognition also helps you learn faster, and to interpret with some understanding. And sometimes it is just nice to hold on to in a crazy ever-changing world.

My uncle Fred stopped writing us musical letters a long time ago. But the ones he left behind are still fascinating so many years hence. I'll share them with you in the months to come. You'll like them. They make the piano sound like it is fulfilling its destiny. They've even helped me to understand myself a little better. Here's to Great Uncle Fred!

Friday, August 2, 2019


Henry David Thoreau said that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds." Whether he meant foolish to particularly modify the noun (#not-all-consistency) or whether he was being redundant for emphasis, people often incline to the latter interpretation. The same sorts of people who tend to like Thoreau, for example.

It's Friday, which is when I post blogs, which I've done uninterruptedly for nearly two years, and most of three before that, so here I am again, even though I'm not sure I've got anything to say worth saying. But there seems to be value in being consistent nonetheless.

When I go for runs I always sprint at the end no matter how tired I feel. Training myself to do that in all circumstances is probably why, when I ran my first half-marathon some years ago, despite feeling completely out of gas and having no energy whatever as I rounded the last turn, I began to sprint anyhow. I couldn't help myself. Even when I saw the clock over the finish line and realized I was going to make my goal time by enough seconds that I could probably slow to a walk and still make it in time, I sprinted on, wondering how in the heck I was managing to do this in the condition I was in. It's about consistency. A baked-in response.

You can say the same for character. If you tell the truth all of the time when it doesn't matter that much you just might still do it when it does. Manners are the same way. Sometimes please and thank you comes out of me before I've even thought about what the situation calls for and before I get distracted or forget. It's on automatic. Some things need to be.

You could also argue that great things are often built out of continued showing up and doing what you can no matter what. Mozart wrote some compositions that are frankly not all that terrific. But it is entirely likely that he gained something from each and every one of them no matter how mediocre. I mean, it seems hardly coincidental that most great composer's best works fall near the end of their lives, and then they come more often. There must have been learning going on in all of those earlier works. How? By constantly doing it. Even when the immediate yield was no masterpiece. Maybe they were sick or tired or just not feeling inspired.

It's possible that some of these masterpieces wouldn't exist without a conscious decision to write something that wasn't so terrific but ended up teaching a vital lesson for later. I can't absolutely prove that. But I choose to believe it.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Tumbleweed Season

When I lived in Illinois, several years ago, I thought of July as Tumbleweed Season. Meaning it was so quiet the calm was interrupted only by the occasional tumbleweed blowing through.

July was the time when everybody who could get out of town left for vacation, and activities mostly ceased in anticipation of the Great Fall Start-up. The Busy Time (that is, the Academic Year) had of course crept in both directions, running later in the year and swallowing June, and with the university students arriving in August it was no longer safe to take vacation so late in the summer because things were starting again earlier than they used to. That left July. Hot, placid, featureless, lonely July.

This year my July was crowned with a concert at St. Paul's Cathedral in Pittsburgh, the last of a series of five performances in a month, consisting of four different programs, on two distinctly different instruments (piano and organ). That hardly made it a month for lounging around.

And when I awoke from my temporary stupor there was a moment of reckoning. Because I like to panic early I realized I had better get started full speed on the programs for the fall. After the organ concert in September there is a series of five lecture recitals within the span of a month and another program on its heels. I have a couple of things in August, too, but they don't really count in the
category "additional preparation needed."

I am not a person who likes to brag-complain about how busy I am in order to sound like I have significance in the universe, however. Instead, I have been focusing on the importance of the quiet spaces in between the fevered activity. They are important, particularly when they are short-lived. A person who is full of tension all of the time is in trouble. And it is not a very useful strategy. Even playing the piano requires an awful lot of relaxation, balance, and poise. Amateurs who don't know how and where to relax remain amateurs. Complicated passages with gallons of notes will forever remain out of the reach of the tense. At every level, micro and macro, rest is important.

I was noticing this yesterday while practicing the piano. It surprised me how easy it felt. This may have been because, although I feel perfectly comfortable at the organ, only having one keyboard and much less for the feet to do suddenly seems really simple, now matter how many notes I shoot out of my fingers. There is also something about the touch of an instrument that lets you feel completely relaxed the moment you have discharged that light pinprick from your finger tips that sends the hammer bouncing up to meet the string. While it is in the air, like a cake in the oven, you don't need to do anything but let that process you've set in motion do its thing. Relaxation in the tiniest of spots, a fraction of a second here, and a fraction of a second there. It adds up.

It's a curious phenomenon. One can be responsible for a great deal of activity and yet feel very calm about it. It's a good way to play the piano, and to live life. Besides, I think stress is over-rated, don't you?

don't forget to check out when you have a chance. This month the radio program is music for the organ concert I gave in Upper St. Clair last month. The St. Paul concert will be available in a couple of weeks.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Cathedral Week Dairy

I had quite the week, preparing for my organ concert at St. Paul Cathedral, Pittsburgh, on Sunday, July 14th at 3:30 pm. (Bring everybody you've ever met. They've got the seating for sure.) This is my diary:

Sunday afternoon I headed to St. Paul for the first concert of the summer series. I've been attending concerts pretty frequently since moving to Pittsburgh three years ago. This one is different, however. Don Fellows, the cathedral organist, comes over and presents me with a set of keys. One of them unlocks the iron gate at the bottom of the steps, the other the door at the top. I am now able to come practice the organ on the four days which have been provided on the cathedral calendar. I am pretty excited. I am also pretty nervous. I've never played this organ before. I know that it was made by a German builder, that it has many characteristics of an 18th century instrument (including a shorter compass; that is, there aren't quite as many keys near the top of each manual, and 'reversed' black and white keys: the keys on the bottom used to be black, unlike on modern instruments). Tomorrow I'll find out if the French Romantic and 20th century pieces I decided to put on the program will work out, and how well I'm getting along with the instrument generally. For any given organ concert you might have to change the way you play a piece, changing which hand goes where, or which buttons you end up pushing to change stops when. The angles can also be very different. There are hundreds of little things to consider, but for now the best thing I can do is just to know the music really well and be as prepared as possible. This week will mostly be about transferring the program to a specific organ. Some people (and not just the cathedral staff!) have called this organ the "finest instrument in North America" so I'm about to have a major privilege, getting to play it all week. But at the moment I'm pretty anxious. In less than a week I'm playing a concert on an instrument I don't know at all. It's too late even to change much of the program, I'd just better make things work. Tomorrow we find out.

Monday: A huge day. I spent the morning practicing at my own church, then I went over to the radio station, WQED, to plug my concert on the air. I recorded a podcast with Jim Cunningham, the morning host. While I was there he took some pictures of me at the "Mr. Rogers" piano, and I got to play it. I thought I would try a little Mozart, but when I sat down all the stuff from Mr. Roger's neighborhood came gushing forth. It was eerie. Every good piano has its own personality. This one sounded exactly like what I remembered as a kid. Wow. There was a moment I wasn't expecting. When I told my wife's colleague at dinner about it, she was much more excited about the Mr. Roger's piano than about the cathedral organ! It turns out she's a native Pittsburgher.

So what happened at the organ? Several things. At first I couldn't find the light switch, so I spent the first 20 minutes playing in the dark. Eventually I figured out where it was (later, I dimly remembered the associate organist telling me where to find it about six months ago during a conversation. Oh well). Now that I am playing at such a monster console at my church every other one seems small. Technically this is a smaller organ than I play at Third (which is one of many organs here that are larger than some cathedral organs), but it has a huge sound in the great space (it isn't small, either. more than 4000 pipes). But like most cathedrals, the worship space may be enormous, but the organ is hidden in the back balcony. The bench faces the organ, and with the cabinet covering and sides you feel a little like being in a cave. The biggest physical issue is that the bench is not adjustable, so I have just a little over an inch between the tops of my legs and the bottom of the key-bed. No extravagant gestures, please! I'll hurt myself.

I have two hours in a quiet cathedral. Every minute has to count. I manage to register everything--except one piece which I realize I've skipped. Oh well, that's not bad for one day: nine pieces sonically mapped out. I don't like all the registrations, but I can fine tune things over the next three days. The best part is that I can play everything decently. Things are going to work, even the French ones. My heart has been pounding all afternoon; now I can relax, and try to get some food and some rest and come back tomorrow. At dinner I can't stop thinking about all of the things I want to fix or fine tune tomorrow, and what the best strategy is for the next two hour frame.

Tuesday: Inevitably, the next day I'm a little tired after the stress and the excitement. But I get to the cathedral in the afternoon to do my thing. I've already thought and rethought what needs to be done and in which order. I decide to concentrate mainly on the second half of the program which has all of the modern and French music. This is where the most challenge lies. There are a few people in the cathedral this time, praying. Loudly. I hate to interrupt, but lately I've had to become inured to the idea that I am making an enormous, very noticeable racket in a space where people regularly come to pray and that is just going to be how it is.

One of the amazing things about the organ is how you can make a huge sound with a tiny movement. I concentrate on using very little energy, physical or emotional, in playing this day.  And I fix a few registrations, as well as the passages and pieces that didn't feel comfortable yesterday. Like Monday, there is a time when I feel worried that time is going by too fast, and then I realize I'll get it all in and am even unsure if I should use all the time. And then it all works out just right at the end. I snap some more pictures and exit the cathedral.

Wednesday: This has been an amazing week. I've even thought of it like one of those week long summer camps one attends as a child, you know, "Organ Concert giving in a Cathedral" summer camp. It's a privilege I don't get every week, particularly on that instrument in that space. Maybe if I had been an organ major instead of a piano major in school that wouldn't be the case. But as anyone who has been to camp knows, you stay up late with your friends, you are very excited, you don't get enough sleep; a few days into the week you are exhausted. I am starting to feel that weight on me. Every time I practice at St. Paul I feel nervous, as if it is the concert itself and I don't want to make any mistakes. That's probably good, I tell myself. How can Sunday feel any different than it feels now, on Wednesday? If there is any change, it will be because somehow I've lost my anxiety and am feeling totally comfortable, even if for only a little while. I continue to adjust to the tracker organ, trying to figure out where to put my feet when I'm not using them, since there is only one expression pedal (and a fairly useless one at that; very little of the organ seems to be behind slats, and therefore capable of being made louder or softer by use of the expression pedal: at my home console we have four of them! Oh well, not having to worry about them makes some things easier. But the balance has to be achieved by using louder and softer stops since there is no way to massage their volume). I being by playing the entire concert straight down. I'm planning to do that tomorrow also. Today it's fairly quiet. Sometimes I look out and see people lighting candles in the front.

Thursday: My last day at the cathedral before Sunday since there are too many events (mainly weddings) happening the next two days so I wasn't given time to practice. When I enter the loft this time I feel different: the place feels familiar, and I have somehow grown comfortable with the organ. That only took four days! I play the entire program, then figure out what needs to be gone over. I'm almost too relaxed and tired to feel anxious about my time slipping away. But I feel confident that things will--or at least, can--go well on Sunday, which was the point. Everything is ready. Before the practice several extra pages to facilitate my own page turns at appropriate spots had disappeared, but they all fall out of one of the books I've brought to the cathedral. Whew! It's hard to leave at the end, but I think the transition has been accomplished. Here we go!

Friday: It's my day to go distance running so I get up early and go 18 miles from my home to the place where the rivers come together. I visit the Mr. Rogers statue and tell him I got to play his piano. It would be a nice run but the weather is awful. Also I'm still tired from the week, but I think once I've recovered from this run in another day I'll be energized for the concert Sunday. It's nice to be doing something completely different, although I can't quite get the Buxtehude out of my head while I'm running up all those hills. I'm looking forward to a big nap this afternoon.

------ is of course, full of interesting things this week. Also, thank you for surviving that abnormally long blog. You deserve a medal.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Are we having fun yet?

They used to say the grass was greener on the other side of the fence. I'm not sure if anybody knows what grass is anymore because we're always looking at our phones. But the idea was that everything looks better to you except your own situation. If you somehow got on the other side of the fence, that is, wound up in a different situation, you would find that it wasn't as terrific as you supposed.

Quite a number of people, on the outside looking in, imagine that being able to play the piano for a living is a pretty wonderful gig. I'm not going to argue. For one thing, it won't change anybody's mind: see the whole thing with the grass. For another, they're right. At least, to a degree.

It is nice to be able to sit down at a musical instrument and competently produce sound whenever you want to. Of course, you don't just get to do it whenever you want to. It is regulated. Which means you now have a series of deadlines, performances, and pressures related to said relaxing activity.

At the most basic level everybody gets what it is like to show up to work when you don't feel like it. For some people that is practically all the time. Others are more fortunate. In principle, most musicians love what they are doing. They may or may not love actually doing it while they are doing it.

Again, most people can relate to the whole being nervous in front of an audience thing, or having to have your homework done by a particular date, when the homework is something that may be reviewed by hundreds of people sitting watching you give your presentation for an hour or so at a piano. The thing is, grass being pretty much the same color everywhere, people tend to assume that the guy up on the stage appearing to have a good time is actually having a good time. Which, speaking from long experience, I can assert, is sometimes true, and sometimes isn't.

I bring this up because last Thursday's organ recital was of particular interest to me precisely because I remember spending bits of it trying to relax and enjoy myself. I hate being nervous (who doesn't) and I'd rather be able to project some of that musical joy on my own person while I'm at it. The program in question was on the lighter side, too, so the effect should have been one of having a musical good time. Also, since I'd managed, rather miraculously, to be adequately prepared for this third different recital program in as many weeks, there wasn't any good reason to panic. I told myself that, and I was, to a large degree successful at managing my mood. This, in turn, probably helped to make the performance work.

Being housed in a human body means any number of strange conditions may visit you in the course of a day, and being called on to perform at a particular time on a particular day come what may means you will inevitably be in pretty much all of them at some point. Some of them can be lived with, some have to be overcome.

Then, of course, there is the effect of giving several performance close together. Wanting to just be able to relax and learn new music without the pressure of deadlines, because deadlines are stressful, and the grass is greener when you get to do what you aren't doing (learning new music is actually not that much fun when I think about it). Trying to set aside the cumulative effect of tiredness and continual extra practice, mental discipline, dealing with side issues, and the like.

Learning to relax and enjoy what you are doing when you are doing it is an art that can take a lifetime to learn. Sometimes the difference between giving an adequate performance and a great performance is exactly the difference between being afraid and letting go and doing it.

I gave that speech to myself at Carnegie Hall once. Then I came home, and a day later was accompanying somebody for a voice lesson. For some reason the teacher, telling her student to relax, told her, "don't worry. This isn't Carnegie Hall."

Ah, but it is. And it isn't. And it really doesn't make a difference. All the world's a stage anyway.

Get comfortable.

pianonoise is back for another week of musical hootenanny. Check out the homepage of

Friday, June 28, 2019

Doing Doughnuts

This month I have four different concert programs in five weeks. Last week there were three piano concerts in Ohio, featuring two different programs. This was on the theory (proven correct) that a few persons might be at two of the concerts and the repetition might look lazy. Yesterday I returned to Pennsylvania for an organ recital about a half hour outside of Pittsburgh. It was a summer concert in connection with a farmer's market next store to the church which wanted to capitalize on the foot traffic. I planned my program accordingly, playing lighter fare (even the Bach item was on the virtouso side) including Ives's "Variations on 'America' for the 4th of July. In two weeks I'll be at St. Paul Cathedral in Pittsburgh in a program of what I promised yesterday to people I talked to afterward would be much "better behaved" than the one I had just played.

All of this, of course, does require a certain amount of planning. It is not, in my opinion, safe to begin learning a concert program the week before the concert! How does it work for me? Here are a few principles.

First, I try to start preparing as early as possible. Even touching a piece for a day or two and then having to leave it aside from general busyness can be quite profitable. It never seems like the piece is quite as unfamiliar when you come back to it even if it is weeks later. The brain stores the experience somewhere, it seems.

Second, planning programs that mainly consist of music which already has a performance history helps. There was one completely new item on yesterday's program, one that I played once a year ago, one that I've played several times in the past few years, and one that has had two fairly recent performances, that is. in the last couple of years. At St. Paul there will be one piece I just learned this semester, and several others that have only been played one time a few years ago, but I've made sure to compensate for this by preparing this concert the most, and starting the earliest. The piano concerts consisted of pieces I had pretty handily under my fingers (except for one last minute addition).

Third, I triaged the programs in terms of how much work each program was likely to need and which pieces would cause the most trouble. As I've written before, when you are working with a lot of music and on short deadlines, this skill is essential. I'm rarely wrong about how long it will take to get comfortable with a piece, and if I am, it is usually because I wasn't optimistic enough. Of course, if you practice something for four hours straight, one day can do wonders.

Then comes the juggling. pick up a program, practice for several days, well in advance, put it away so you can work on something else. As the program gets close it is time to cram--well, concentrate on polishing the concert in front of you. In between comes a doughnut hole of neglect, which, if it is large enough, may require periodically playing through the program even if no great progress is made in terms of practice.

This spring I began from the back, working on the St Paul program--most of it, anyway--so that it would have lots of time to mature. I then began work on the piano programs, leaving the other organ recital till later, when the piano programs were almost upon me. At that point I spent the week mainly practicing not for the concert I was about to give but for the next in the series. The strategy mainly worked. There was one piece on one of the piano concerts in which in one of the difficult passages I basically threw up all over the piano, but otherwise, the concerts all went well. The organ recital went well yesterday, too. As my hometown newspaper would have so imaginatively put it "A good time was had by all." (thousands of English teachers just howled).

Three down, one to go. 

And if I need something to do with my time in two weeks, I've got five programs to get ready for fall. 

Friday, June 21, 2019

Pushing my buttons

I have had the same digital recorder for 16 years. There were several times when it seemed to be given up its electronic ghost, but then somehow, through a lot of cajoling, colorful language, and dumb luck, I managed to keep it going. It has made well over a thousand recordings, and many of them turned out well enough to post. It has spent a large portion of its life with the skin off, exposing the wires and requiring me to have the position of the buttons memorized, or take time finding it.

But it soldiered on. Until, finally, after months of periodically destroying SD cards by writing bad sectors on them, I had had enough. So I got a new recorder.

The technological leap is in many ways astounding. Now a single memory card will get me 50 hours of recording time. Live concerts are now easy to record without having to flush the card as soon as you get a spare minute. If you have a concert the next day, or something else you want to record, there is plenty of room. And when it comes time to dump the contents onto your computer it no longer takes 20 minutes to get an hour of audio to load. The new time is about 45 seconds.

I did have some issues though. There is naturally a learning curve with all things new. What I was not expecting is that I would have problems with the menu button. Right out of the box it didn't seem to work. What gives these days?

It turns out that you need to push the button the proper way. Having spent all week using my laptop at a 90 degree angle so the power cord will connect while I wait for a new one that FedEx sent from California by way of Paraguay, I can appreciate the need to do funny things to get things to work. Half of my career seems to be about making things happen when reasonable people would have given up long ago.

It seems odd that I would be pushing the button the wrong way. It's a button, right? You just push it.

My theory is that for most people that's exactly what happens. But for me, trained in 80 flavors of staccato, whose vocation is the use of the fingers on plastic levers to make sounds, there is more than one way to push a button. If you do it with a kind of languorous ultra-legato, pressing and holding with a heavy, insistent finger, it never reacts. But an articulate, rapid flick of the finger gets it to work every time.

I'm glad I figured that out. I would have had to take it back to the store and started my search over. Instead, I have memorized one more little sub-routine for getting through life that works and is simple once you know it.

Welcome to my weird little world. Even pushing a button is an adventure in piano technique.

In case you were wondering about the package with my new power cord in it (see last week's post), it was "guaranteed" to arrive on Monday at my temporary abode in Ohio where I knew I would be spending the week when I ordered it. It is now five days late, having started in California, and, according to the tracking information, been through New Mexico, Texas, Missouri, then Florida (where it spent 3 days for no apparent reason), Kentucky, then it passed Cincinnati and spent a day in Columbus. It made the remaining 90 minute car trip back to Cincinnati, where it was transferred to the US postal service, which now has the package at the local post office and should be delivered today. Having just wrapped up 3 concerts in Ohio I plan to return to Pittsburgh today. Which means the package may have to be re-mailed the rest of the way. Apparently "guarantee" is one of those words that has changed meaning recently.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Cue the fiddle music

My dearest reader,

It has been nearly four days since a most unfortuitous calamity has sent me careening into the 19th century. The power cord on my computer has become irrevocably damaged and to such a grave extent that I fear for the continued necessary usage of my computer. I have had to subsist on all manner of borrowed electronic contrivances. Only my phone has stood by me during this time of severe trial. I hope, God willing, to regain the use of my computer if by the next post should come the new power cord which I have ordered sent to my current address. It will only be then that my regular mode of life shall be restored. Until then I shall be an unwilling denizen of times past when our race must needs have foraged for survival in an unkind environment.

I am in a pitiable state. The normal mode of commerce with my species having been disrupted, I have been forced to have intercourse only with my own thoughts, and they are black indeed. Whither shall I wander in this un-digital world? In what manner can I profitably spend my time if not in front of a computer? What little talents I may possess can surely be of little use without the approved electronic medium to disseminate them among my brethren.

Once assured that my computer was not at fault, I turned my attentions to procuring a new cord for it, the old one having been mercilessly ripped apart by my thoughtlessly dangling the adapter box from the port side of the piano whilst composing. Heedlessly I have acted, but I shall not repeat my misdeed. A new power strip will relieve its successor of gravity's rapacious grip rather than twisting the plug into the shape that circumstance has forced it into, thereto.

Whenceforth I shall continue in weeks to come to protract my opinions in this space, newly returned to the century of the 21st. Entertaining the fondest hopes for the speedy remedy of this malady, I am, ever your blogger,


Friday, June 7, 2019

Miss Olga

Miss Olga retired last week.

Her name is Olga Radosavljevich, and she taught piano at the Cleveland Institute of Music, Preparatory Division, for 59 years. She didn't think students would be able to pronounce Radosavljevich, so she went by Miss Olga.

I had to look up how to spell it, but I had no problem pronouncing it. In fact, I just tried saying it five times fast. It's been awhile, and I only got through it four times before stumbling on the last one.

Miss Olga was the head of the Prep Department, which is where you went for lessons before being enrolled at the Conservatory. When I was 16, I took lessons in the Prep department, though Miss Olga was not my teacher. In fact, I think, due to my sloppy technical skills, she didn't want me as a student. A year later, at the end of year exam, she wrote "EXCELLENT!" in big letters across the top of the page. "When he first came it was obvious he lacked formal training but he has made an ENORMOUS improvement since" was her enthusiastic assessment. It remains one of my most glowing reviews.

I had studied with an elementary music teacher in our little town for several years. I owe her a lot, too, but it eventually became clear that, to borrow her own words, she was "not suitable for [my] purposes."

In the two years I had in the prep department I studied with a conservatory graduate student and made huge strides. Miss Olga was there to make sure of it.

Of course, Miss Olga's 59 year career only came to a peaceful and magnificent conclusion last week because my grandmother didn't kill her thirty years ago.

Miss Olga gave a master class in which several dozen of us played Czerny exercises for her one long Sunday afternoon. I was apparently the most advanced (I was probably a high school senior at this point) and was held for the end. The first students got a lot of instruction, and as the class dragged on past the four hour mark and the relieved parents left with their charges one by one as they finished taking their public lesson, only I and my family were left. Miss Olga looked at her watch wearily and said that maybe it was time to stop. My grandmother, according to my mother, looked like she wanted to kill Miss Olga.

We stopped grandma in time, and I got to play for her anyway. She was encouraging.

I have a recording of the 90 second etude I played on that occasion. I made the recording a few years ago one afternoon. I imagine it has improved a little since 1989, though I barely practiced it before I turned on the microphones!

Here's to you, Miss Olga. You have a lot of thankful students.

Czerny, Etude in Bb, op. 299 #13

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Friday, May 31, 2019

Organ Crawl

The following article is appearing in the Third Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh's newsletter, "The Spire" this weekend.

It may not seem like news that organists tend to be nerds, but what you may not be aware of is what associative nerds we are. The Pittsburgh chapter of the American Guild of Organists is 300 members strong and very active. Each month we gather to fellowship, eat, support each other, and of course gawk at various organs. This past month we had an “organ crawl” in which three of the guild’s chapters came together to spend the day in Greensburg traveling to six churches and hearing recitals on each of the organs. We rented a school bus to get to the venues, and there was much merriment on that score. Some of the members commented that they hadn’t been on a school bus in a very long time. I assured the bus driver that I didn’t have gum. At the end of the trip the driver complimented us on our good behavior! Organists have been known to get rowdy, you know.

The trip was very well thought out, with a large souvenir program, several fine organists to play for us, and a variety of programs at the varied places of worship which included a college chapel, and Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian churches. Two of the programs were short worship services, and it was at the last of the evening, at the Presbyterian church, that I will always remember the sound of all of those organists singing the hymns. It may have been helped by the acoustic, but organists can really sing!

The college chaplain used his short homily to be thankful for the role that music plays in worship and thank the organists. Although there are Guild chapters all over the country, I think ours is unique for size and activity, and I am thankful for this group that is unique to Pittsburgh.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Rosamunda's Anniversary

Rosamunda is a year older.

We have no idea when our fine feline friend was born, but we do know that we adopted her on May 22nd, 2018, so we celebrate that as adoption day. That is her special day.

You would like to know how she spent it? Lounging in a chair in the sun, taking occasional tongue-baths, hunting for all things to play with, chasing her toys when we threw them, and in the evening there was a brief and exciting encounter with a fly which nonetheless eluded her. Perhaps it will furnish a protein snack on another day.

Her predecessor often got a ceremonial saucer of milk which he either drank or did not drink. If he drank it we had six more weeks of summer. Or maybe it was the other way around. His "birthday" was in July so it was a pretty safe bet either way.

In the year in which she has been with us Rosamunda (who started out as "Rosie" at the shelter, and then I started dishing out the fancy derivatives and one of them stuck) had undergone a dramatic change. She was four pounds under weight and missing half of her fur. Here is her before picture:

It took her about two weeks to stop hiding behind boxes in the basement and wander the house freely. But even in the early days she was a snugglepuss. The first day we met, I put my hand in the cage and when it touched her fur she began to pur loudly. Then they got her out and set her on my lap. She stayed on it, purring away. It was pretty clear this was our cat.

Now she's gotten pretty comfortable with the routine. It is true that she ate herself back to full weight and then some and we had to put her on a bit of diet. For some reason she doesn't bother knocking glasses off of counters or eating houseplants, two of her brother's obsessions. And she'll sleep with us whenever we let her (which is not on "school nights" because she wakes Kristen up jumping back on the bed after her snack break at 4 in the morning) and follows us from room to room to be with her people.

These pictures are from the other day.

I could of course bore you with many more (and certainly will) but you are no doubt gushing copious amounts of tears at how cute our feline is sleeping and I think it is only merciful to let you off the hook for now.

Rosie had some tough shoes to sniff but she is doing her best, which is really terrific. And her humans love her.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Concert at St. Paul's Cathedral

My fingers are tired.

This does not happen often, though I am asked about it so frequently that when I posted a question and answer page on my website several years ago the first question I responded to was exactly that. The page is called "Aren't your fingers tired? A friendly question and answer page for the curious."

Usually the answer is no, because I practice several hours a day, and when people wonder after a one hour concert if my fingers are tired I explain to them that one hour is not very long for me to exercise my digits on an average day. But yesterday I did quite a bit of practice. In the morning I remember a period when, sitting at the organ, I was pushing my fingers pretty hard into the keys. From a musical standpoint there is no reason at all to do this, but it felt right to be confidently releasing my fingers into the keys as I sought to connect the muscle moves with my brain while assimilating the music. It seemed to fuse the connections, make the music mine. I had a piano teacher who suggested I should practice forte while learning.

Still, fingers are muscles, and you have to give them a rest sometimes. I would be doing that now, but unfortunately, typing a blog also takes finger activity. I am not wealthy enough to be able to afford additional sets of fingers I can dedicate to one activity or the other. It would be convenient, though.

So I'll keep this one short, and simply announce the reason for my excessive dedication. I have several concerts this summer, two of which are at the organ and in the Pittsburgh area. One of them is at St. Paul's Cathedral on July 14 at 3:30 p.m. Being a relative latecomer to the organ means that despite playing all the most difficult literature and having given several organ concerts in recent years, I have never given an organ recital in a bona-fide cathedral. It's exciting. It is a great place to play, and a great instrument. I've been to several concerts there before and now I get to give one. Yesterday I finally figured out what I'm going to play on the entire program. For weeks I had the beginning and the end and wasn't sure what to do with the middle.

It will consist of several short pieces. Recently I played a program of a few long pieces and I've decided to go back the other way. These are mostly 5 minutes each. They come from Germany, Italy, Spain, Lithuania and France. There are four centuries represented. Some of them are very loud, others on one or two stops only. The organ (this one particularly) has quite a few coloristic possibilities, and I will be trying to exploit nearly all of them! I think it is a program that will be very friendly to people who are not sure they like organ recitals. And it's free. So bring your friends: the cathedral seats about a gazillion people. I'll be up in the balcony; I'll try to wave occasionally.

Friday, May 10, 2019

I'm Bored!

Not being a mother, I don't have access to the official book of things to say to your children in every situation,  and thus I don't know what page it is on. But I'm sure it's in there somewhere. When your child complains that they are bored, you say "no, you are boring."

They may have updated the book since, because that seems a little unnecessarily cruel for this enlightened era, but it may have some redemptive sting in it after all. Being unable to either provide your own external stimulus or (gasp) even being able to find sufficient stimulus in the workings of your own mind is a skill, and it ought to be cultivated; otherwise, you risk being bored a lot.

At least, you used to. These days there are screens everywhere and access to thousands of entertainment options. It would seem that the likelihood of being bored has gone down. But then, the tolerance for being able to deal with even a short period of non-entertainment has gone down with it, so there is still a grave risk that at some point a young mind may not know what to do with itself.

I was a child before the days of the internet and even the IPOD was a new and expensive commodity so when I was out mowing the yard I would "listen" to records in my head sometimes for entertainment, or imagine baseball games, making up what happened. Now when I vacuum I plug my phone into my headphones and listen to things streamed online. But when I run I don't plug anything into anything. It is just me and my environment for two or three hours, no headphones, no music. I simply enjoy the trees, the birds, and try not to run over the chipmunks darting in front of me. Once I nearly hit the trifecta of (almost) managing to run over a squirrel in a car, on a bicycle, and on foot in the same day.

I tried music a couple of times; everybody else was doing it. But then I gave it up and let my mind provide its own inner dialogue, or none at all. It was a little bland at first. But I thought it was a good way to cultivate boredom.

--Wait, back up. Cultivate boredom?--

Interesting things happen when you actually create the conditions to be bored. One thing is that you learn to deal with it. Things don't have to happen all of the time. Sometimes just sitting in a chair can be pleasant. And the mind can find things to think about; what is harder is disciplining those things so they are worth the rumination.

There have been musicians who have dealt with this phenomenon quite a lot. Erik Satie comes immediately to mind. So does Phillip Glass. Trying to be intentionally bored can seem like a fool's errand, but if you want mental serenity, learning to de-clutter the mind can actually be a spiritual discipline. Here's Jeremy Begbie: "Music can teach us a kind of patience which stretches and enlarges, deepens us in the very waiting."

Once you've managed to allow periods of non-stimulus, a blank mental slate; to throw out whatever thoughts "do not bring joy," you can decide purposefully what you want to be in there. We go from mental wandering to intentional, structured thinking. It has rewards that many cannot fathom, but it is worth the struggle.

Why am I bring this up today? Because I had a question this week from someone who would like some tips for how to learn music faster. I get questions like this a lot. And, given that practice efficiency is something that interests me, I decided to devote a web page to it. It will be up sometime next week.

The writer's primary motivation for gaining speed, however, does not seem to have been that life is short and there is a lot of music out there waiting to be learned; it was to avoid boredom. Playing the pieces over and over, which seems to be the accepted way to gain fluency, was getting tedious. Is there a way to learn the music fast enough not to have to deal with this?

In the past, my answers to that question, some of which are on this page, have been some variation on the idea that boredom is necessary to competence; that if you aren't bored by your piece yet, you don't know the piece well enough, and that, frankly, getting faster at learning only means you will learn to get bored faster. But there is a way to avoid the negative aspects of boredom. If you are practicing in a way that is completely focused on the music, every moment, every detail, rather than a cursory put-in-the-time manner which worries about playing everything 10 times but does not take any particularl pleasure in a well-articulated C, or a well calibrated dynamic shift; which does not notice the difference between a small hesitation between two chords and gets no delight from being able, on the next pass, of closing the gap, or getting a better sound through more focused voicing--if you think that every time you play a passage it sounds the same, and you only liked the piece when it was new because your ears can't hear the difference between a passage with all of the notes correct and on time, and several that aren't, then you know what?

You are Boring!

Most of the world's amateur pianists will probably stay that way, too, which is my attempt at realism, not mean-ness. But for those who want to try, with pain and struggle, to go beyond that, a vast world will open up. I know this because I inhabit this world daily. It took a long time to gain citizenship. But I am rarely bored, even when the piece is far from novel.

I will even submit, at the risk of seeming like a complete nerd, that I find thinking about and writing about practicing interesting. And so I will make another attempt at helping someone else deal with the scourge of boredom and lead them to practice Valhalla.

I mean, it's worth a try.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Up jumps the baritone

It's one thing when you're bored. Tired of the same old, easily distracted, ready to move on to something else without having adequately explored the bountiful terrain you have at hand.

It is something else entirely when you are trying to take the next step, the next great step in an epic journey, to go beyond what you've known, what your people have known, to transcend the old limitations and to obey the voice that beckons to the beyond, the unknown, with all of its promise and risk, and unexplainable unfathomable richness.

Beethoven used a baritone to tell us. Up he jumps, 7 minutes into the final movement of the Ninth Symphony, and sings, "Friends! No more of these tones..."

Those tones had cost Beethoven about a decade of labor. They take nearly an hour even to listen to at performance speed. They are full of drama and intensity, and they don't let up even for a moment. They explore, in great detail, every interval, every melodic fragment, every rhythmic surprise that Beethoven has on his symphonic pallet. In between the storms and the stress they keep returning to variations on a melody that hasn't come into being yet, with the promise of the sun breaking through the clouds only for an instant before the dark returns.

And then, without explaining himself, Beethoven begins the finale with an explosive chord that puts the key of the third movement against the key of the rest--Bb and d minor, simultaneously, and when the dust settles, the celli begin their long recitative, preparing the way for the tenor to come. And they do something else.

Each of the first three movements appears for a moment in snatches, and is rejected by the celli, apparently remembering their taming by the piano in the fourth piano concerto and back for another round, saying, "no, not this one." "No, not this one either." Every possible answer that has been put forth to this point is not the right one. For more than an hour we've been searching for the right way to live, and it has eluded us. For it's more than a symphony.

Nobody had ever included voices in a symphony, and trying to make that work; to suddenly, after an hour of just instruments, to bring in a choir, and soloists, without making the piece break in two, and seem disjointed, was a problem that vexed Beethoven for a long time. Until, he had a breakthrough and decided he had the answer.

"Friends, no more of these tones! Let us sing more joyful sounds!"

It is Schiller's Ode to Joy, in which even the earthworms get to share in the happiness, in which there is at last a universal answer to a composer's personal restlessness, which provides the climax.

But along the way, the symphonist has been preparing us carefully, relentlessly, each moment and in every detail, so that when that moment comes it has been there waiting all along. It is both inevitable and a surprise, a thing that had to come into being except that we didn't recognize it until it was upon us. The great hope, springing on us suddenly, in an instant, and longed for forever.

It is a shame that most people only know the Ode, the thing ripped from its universe like an answer that no longer seems to be an answer to anything. If you have the patience for it, the Ninth unfolds with a stunning narrative, gripping in its need, thrilling beyond measure in its fulfillment. All you need is ears to hear.

Which can take a lifetime.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Beethoven the expressive

At the final Beethoven lecture on Beethoven's Ninth Symphony I pointed to what I felt was a rather odd little one-note trumpet dotted figure sandwiched between phrases near the opening of the first movement. It seemed to recall the music of an earlier generation, the public musical flourishes of Mozart in many of his symphonies or piano concerti. It was a tiny detail, easy to ignore, a simple musical glue amidst what could have been construed as the more interesting string figure, the theme of the third movement in embryo. But I spent a few moments fixating on the passing trumpet comment instead.

At the end of the same movement is a ghostly chromatic figure over which the woodwinds trill in the style of a funeral march. It also seems to come out of nowhere, a strangely powerful moment that has not been set up by any of the preceding material.

What both of these moments have in common is that they don't seem to be connected to the musical fabric. Beethoven, the master of motivic transformation and large-scale connection, seems to have gone outside the logic of theme and pattern and embraced pre-made musical elements, fragments that would suggest ideas, moods, occasions, because of their ubiquitous use in Viennese musical life, and not because he had defined them via his own symphonic context.

Beethoven's willingness to do that should jolt us out of any cliched view of the master as one who simply worked within his own musical ambit, fashioning meaning from a manipulation of very economically distributed blocks. It might also tell us, that at least in this symphony, he felt the need to push outward into the realm of the program, the philosophy, the idea, to stretch his compositional methods to the breaking point because what he wanted to say was vitally important and he needed every compositional resource available.

That he embedded these arresting glimpses of a symphonic beyond amidst logically connected motivic elements on a huge scale is an incredible testament to his variety of approach. This is the composer who is known for working in small musical segments but who could, on occasion, write a beautiful, long-breathed melody. Transitions can be condensed to the point of nothing, or spray the unwary listener with gallons of supercilious notes. Tension can build to a mighty climax, or the ending can simply evaporate in a puff of humor.

The Ninth Symphony is overwhelming. The first two movements are staggering, over half and hour of loud and dramatic, unrelieved by a slow movement of such beauty and intensity that the listener is close to exhaustion before the final movement, the architectural omega, with its celebrated Ode to Joy, even begins.

Beethoven had a lot to say. It took him 12 years to say it.

I've been thinking about Douglas Adams's quote that the music of Beethoven "show us what it is like to be Beethoven." I think he's right. And very wrong. This music shows us far more.

If I had five more lectures I still wouldn't be able to unpack that idea. Gustav Mahler, one of Beethoven's symphonic heirs, said that a symphony "is like the world. It should embrace everything."

He owes that idea to Beethoven, who started composers on that path. The result is to stretch expression to the breaking point, filling it with contradiction after contradiction, each new method overthrowing the old, while shedding light on everything that came before and everything that is to come after. Take that too far and we are on the cusp of meaning nothing at all.

A small composer expresses him or herself, and that only. Adams thought that rather than Beethoven it was Bach who "shows us what it is like to be the universe." Which is apt in that Bach lived in the age before artistic self-expression was even a current in the ocean of ideas, though inapt if you consider the universe to be cold and lifeless and enormously beyond expressiveness. It was Adams's admiration for Bach which kept him from seeing something else about Beethoven, something which does not negate his power to reveal himself any more than a stained glass window shows us its beauty by blocking the rays of the sun.

Beethoven shows us what it is like to be alive.
you know the drill: 

Friday, April 19, 2019

Beethoven and Us

I asked students in my class to share some of their stories related to Beethoven. After focusing on Beethoven's music for four and a half weeks, I wanted to provide a window for our personal encounters with the music and the man, whether positive or negative. Here are a few snippets:

"When my sister and I were about 8 and 10, we started taking piano lessons.  Our parents, who had had no musical education themselves, were determined that their children would get the musical education they hadn’t had themselves.  In fact, my mother decided to take piano lessons as well.  I remember one year, night after night, trying to go to sleep as Mom practiced “Fur Elise” downstairs - painstakingly going over passages again and again and again.  By the end of that year, I swore I’d never listen to that blasted piece again."

So, no "Fur Elise" in class. Got it. Actually there were a few of you who wrote that they couldn't stand that piece anymore. 

But not everybody.

"My parents before me enjoyed Beethoven's music and I must have heard it growing up. I started piano lessons at the age of 8, and was playing Für Elise when I was about 12. I thought I played it reasonably well and was quite pleased I could play it without notes for my recital. That was a very positive first encounter with, and owning of, a Beethoven piece."

See, some folks have a nice time with that piece. 

I expected a few Beethoven encounters to be rocky, however. Here is a very well written insight into just one such difficulty. The subject line was "Beethoven without Fear."

"Around the mid-1970s, grocery stores would sometimes offer merchandise specials to woo customers.  Usually it was cookware, like a nonstick skillet, or necessities like dish towels, but sometimes the specials veered away from the kitchen, like Volume 1 of an encyclopedia at a low introductory price.  And on one occasion, it was records – the 33 1/3 LPs that were the still the leading technology of the time (just before cassette tapes). And the very first one offered for sale was Beethoven's 6th Symphony, for something like $1.99.

Although I was very budget-minded young mother at the time, this went into the shopping cart, but not without some trepidation. Beethoven scared me.  I had been a fan of Bach (the first classical album I ever bought) and Mozart (I played Eine Kleine Nachtmusik for our kids at night, as my mother had done for me). But Beethoven always seemed intimidating. He was a giant, yet to me he seemed too loud, too long and overwrought. What little I did know— his greatest hits (the 5th, Fur Elise, Moonlight Sonata) –  were so overplayed as to seem either overbearing or tedious.

I knew I had to be missing something. So I bought the album, took it home and played it, and it was lovely. The kids calmed down and even my husband -- strictly a jazz devotee -- enjoyed it. I played it again, and again, and again. We still love it."

I'll come back to that letter later. In the meantime, here is a story of consistent effort:

"So when I was around 15 years old, a good friend and me decided we wanted to learn all the Beethoven symphonies. We didn’t have a classical radio station in the city, and my home only had Chopin Waltzes, Swan Lake, and Bolero, all chosen by my mother when we joined the Columbia record club. I had a boxy record player. There was a place in downtown Montreal called The Record Store, and every week we would take the bus down there to rent a symphony. We started with the first symphony and in 9 weeks had heard them all!  It cost $1.00 a record to rent."

I remember hours spent in music libraries listening to things I wanted to be able to hear all of. In college I actually worked my way through the Haydn symphonies. All 104. It took a couple of years, though.

I wanted to talk about our personal encounters with the music because some time during my preparation of some of the piano sonatas (by the way, I played at least one movement from 8 of the 32 sonatas during the course of the class) I realized that I could remember when and where I had first learned many of them, and sometimes even had fond memories of my initial exposure to the music. 

In high school I purchased a CD which contained Vladimir Ashkenazy's interpretations of three Beethoven Sonatas: The Moonlight, Appassionata, and Pathetique. I played all of them in class (but only the first movement of the Appassionata). I remember wishing to play the Appassionata, but not having the music. I grew up in a small town without a classical music store, and I had no idea where to get a copy of the sonatas. So I went about it another way: I listened to the piece again and again, and learned to play the entire sonata by ear. Some time later, at a summer music camp on a university campus, I stopped in at their library to see the actual score. The page was thick with notes. I remember thinking, man, this piece is hard! Good thing I didn't know that at the time!

This was a story I did not share in class because we were pressed for time. I'm glad so many of you shared your stories. I still have a few more things to say about Beethoven, so although the class is over, I'll keep blogging about him for another week. Stay tuned, and thanks!
The Easter edition is up at Check it out!

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

In the middle of the night...I go writing about Beethoven in my sleep

I am writing this blog at 4 a.m. I've been awakened by our cat, not by the usual method of jumping on our bed (which mainly disturbs my wife and is why Rosamunda is only permitted to sleep with us on weekends*), but because the overnight low is not as low anymore and her furry warmth was a little too pronounced. Did I mention she likes to sleep on top of my legs? I know how Snoopy's doghouse must feel.

Being awake, my mind decided to go to work, thinking about Beethoven. It's been doing that a lot these days. Tomorrow we'll wrap up a series of five lectures about the Bard of Bonn. I called them all "Beethoven the Revolutionary" and the class focused on four different aspects of Beethoven's musical personality, with the Ninth Symphony thrown in for good measure, and a chance to share our own Beethoven stories (that's tomorrow).

As I've been immersed in Beethoven for several months now, I can't help incorporating some of his methodology. Beethoven likes to connect ideas like few mortals ever have, particularly over a large area. A thematic idea from the beginning will show up at the end. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony begins and ends with the same interval. 75 minutes later he is still thinking of that downward fifth.

So it is appropriate to begin and end the journey the same way, in the middle of the night, when I can't sleep, writing about Beethoven.

It was sometime around 2 a.m. on an early fall night that I awoke, hot, and, not being able to sleep, at first lay in bed vainly trying. But in my mind I began to hear myself giving a lecture on Beethoven. This turned out to be useful.

It was useful because I was about to teach a class on the movie "Amadeus," which I had wanted to do for quite some time, and which seemed like a great idea for a class. The problem with having a great idea is not the idea itself but having a sequel. I had already gotten a course on the organ out of my system. Whither next? Not to mention that there was a deadline approaching for proposing a course (the deadline for the spring semester comes even before you've begun to teach in the fall) and I hate not knowing where I'm going to go next.

Then the tenor jumped up and said "friends, away with this uncertainty..."

As Mental Me began to go on and on about the music of a composer I could talk about for hours, I realized I'd kick myself if I fell back asleep and forgot what I was creating. So I got up and wrote on a sheet of paper an outline for a five week course, what topics I would cover each week, what music I would play, major ideas to be incorporated into a series of forays into the music and the ways Beethoven's compositional obsessions could be approached. Then, two hours later, I fell asleep. And months later, when it was time to put it into practice, I did what Beethoven did. I changed my mind about a lot of it.

Through January and February I mainlined a lot of Beethoven. Sonatas I hadn't played in years. About seven sonatas in all. Some of them didn't make the cut. Some of the more overplayed did, but I hope I used them in creative ways so they didn't seem stale. I tried to approach each one differently, to get at a different aspect of Beethoven's musical mind, as well as to shed light on the compositional process itself. Then there were recordings of the symphonies. We listened to sections large and small. we talked about recurring themes, Beethoven's love of jerking his audience around and making them wait for things, sometimes the whole thing revolved around a single note. I improvised, and played in two keys at once, talked about musical punctuation, and made jokes about chickens. Beethoven's bust never smiled (it was Mozart anyway).

Tomorrow it ends, at least for this incarnation. Before I go I want to thank my class. I'm grateful to them for sharing the experience. Besides sharing wonderful Beethoven stories and asking good questions, they've been a really attentive, listening audience. When I start to play a sonata you can hear a pin drop. This includes the space between movements, but is particularly noticeable during all of the dramatic silences that Beethoven loves to write. The other day one of my colleagues complained about audience behavior. I have no complaints. It is infinitely rewarding to let Beethoven paint his tonal mysteries on a bed of complete silence. Nobody even hacked up a lung during one of the slow movements (take that, Heinz Hall!) All this was evident within the first thirty seconds of the first class when I made the choice-- in a class whose focus was the music itself-- to begin with the music itself. For the first time I opened a class without introducing myself. I simply walked onto the proscenium, sat down at the piano, and started with the rolled chord from the opening of the Tempest sonata. I didn't say as much as hello until I'd played the entire first movement. There had been the usual pre-class chatting, of course, but within five seconds of the first note from the piano, all competing noise had ceased. They hadn't particularly noticed when I ascended the stairs to the piano and sat down quietly, but the instant they heard musical sound they took it as if someone was speaking to them and they wanted to hear what he had to say. I wish more people understood this to be true, rather than assuming that anybody who isn't singing is just there to perfume the air while they continue to be impressed by their own observations about the weather.

The Beethoven stories I'll share with you on Friday. I expected there to be a certain amount of remembered unhappiness with a man who set really high standards and made it hard to follow, wrapped up in fraught issues like childhood piano lessons and trips to hear men in tuxedos demanding quiet and doing weird things like stabbing the air with batons and blowing and plucking things that never really got explained but they sure seemed unfriendly. There was that, of course, and a healthy amount of overcoming, just like our hero.

I was reminded by a colleague that 2020 is going to be a big year for Beethoven. It will be his 250th birth year. I trust we'll all be ready for the Beethovenian onslaught. I'll be teaching about something else by then, but I hope these talks and the performances of the music will help us go into the year with a real passion for and understanding of the music. I called these lectures 'interactive program notes' and I hope they plant seeds that grow with each listening to all of the great music that has been left us by our gifted fellow humans.

Soon it will be time to get on with other things. But will we soon forget our sojourn with brother Beethoven?

Not I.

*this was written Saturday "morning."
**I have no idea why the title is a reference to a Billy Joel song. My mind thought it up.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Out of the symphonic ooze

There are different ways to approach the learning process, and ways to make pieces of classical music seem intelligible and familiar to audiences abound. Most of them involve demonstrations, and talking about the various themes and transitions. I've tried that.

In our first [Beethoven the Revolutionary] class, I played a sonata movement right at the start. Then later, after planting various ideas in the heads of the students by way of other sonata movements and symphonies, I brought those ideas into the domain of the first piece, talked about them, and played the piece again to end the class. Repetition.

Other times I simply point out salient features of the piece and then play it. Or play it first and then point out the salient features. Or just play the piece and let people make of it what they will. Or, once, take them on a talking tour but never actually play the entire piece--just the talking points.

Last week I tried a different method. After the intermission I sat at the piano and improvised on themes from the sonata movement I was about to play. The effect, I suppose, was somewhat like a solo cadenza from a piano concerto. I tried to use all the various bits of material Beethoven used, freely, letting them wander in different directions than had the composer. Also, some of the themes I imagined in a more primitive state. Beethoven of course was a gifted improviser, and he was also a composer who revised constantly. His initial ideas were not always that great, but eventually he fashioned them into something mighty. By letting some of the themes evolve during my improvisation, I hoped to approximate something like what might have happened when Beethoven was starting work on the sonata.

This may have gone a little bit into the specialist weeds, and perhaps it will not be something that many of my students will remember, despite the fact that virtually anyone else teaching the class would not have been able to do this. I found it interesting. If I weren't so busy at the moment I would have made recordings of the improvisation and the sonata movement so you could compare them. For now you'll just have to enjoy the concept. Maybe I'll get around to it this summer. I'm blogging about it now partially to remind myself that I did this, before the class is a distant memory and all I have are some incomplete teaching notes.

Improvisation is a good survival skill (such as when you have too much music to prepare in a given week or your lecture runs short) but it is also an insight into the creative process. Being able to take a given them and imagine other possibilities gives one a different relationship to the music, to be able to dialogue with it, and then to relish all the more the paths that Beethoven did take.