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.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Come on! You've got this!

You can do it! Keep it up! You've got this! Go for it! Chase that dream!

It's a little odd how our species is capable of offering generic advice that can travel the world and be seen by other members who are completely unknown to the person giving the advice; as is the time of day, the circumstances of their day, and their mental state at the time.

But heck, a lot of people make a good living offering positive, affirming support to people they barely know, and presumably those folks are grateful for it. And now, in the middle of January, seems as good a time as ever to be putting it out there.

That's because I assume many of you made resolutions to practice the piano more this year, and, let's face it, right about now, that moment of euphoria when you made the decision and thought about how wonderful it would be when the results poured in, is probably wearing off, and the road is getting a little rough. Your schedule is probably not helping, and if you haven't got a long history of practice, so is your resolve.

So I say: keep going! Tough it out! You can do it, unknown person!

Sure, there's a little bit of humor in it: people who gather at the roadsides for marathons with those encouraging signs sometimes put on them "Go, random stranger!" which may or may not be all that helpful, but a little silliness helps sometimes, too.

I can tell you this, however. It's bound to get hard. And you are most definitely going to have to work harder than you thought you would to get the results you want. You will have to repeat that first measure many more times than you think anybody should have too. And you will think you must be stupid for not getting it sooner. Unless I'm the only one.

I doubt it. And since I'm a professional pianist and have the results of all that work to prove it, I'm not so embarrassed to say that today, tomorrow, and every day I practice (which is nearly every day and for several hours) I never get things learned and fluid as fast as I would like.

So swallow that pride and keep working. And when you skip a day because you thought you'd practice EVERY day but you just couldn't that one day, dust yourself off, and keep going. Because if you really want it, you're going to fail, a lot. And you have to get tough. And when it isn't that much fun, you have to learn to tolerate that, work through it, and flex those muscles, because eventually you will learn to be able to practice longer and harder, but only if you condition those mental muscles of yours to accept the pain of trying hard to do something that is just out of your reach.

Ultimately, you'll need to learn to practice smarter, too, not just forever. That's where teachers help. Also, this blog will visit that question many times in the coming months.

But for now, it's kick in the pants time!

So stop wasting time reading this and get back to Chopin! (or whomever).

I'll be here later. But for now, get practicing!

Monday, January 7, 2019

moving on

I'm going to throw a few more words at Christmas.

It ends tonight for me. Epiphany was yesterday, and I like to keep my cyber-decorations and music up until the sanctified end. Also, there are some persons of my acquaintance who are Orthodox, and their Christmas is in January 7th, so I leave them up another 24 hours because, why not?

The tree and the decorations in the house may or may not have made it that long, the cookies may have long since been digested, the work week has long since resumed, but I can do what I wish with my digital address, and I choose this way.

There is some anxiety to what happens after the festive season disappears. Some people I've talked to consider the holiday a series of obligations, and a rush to fulfill them all. They are glad to just have the whole thing over with. Some years, as a musician at Christmas, I could understand that.

It's still unfortunate, though, and says something about the nature of our celebrating. Like, maybe we aren't doing it right? Too much work, too little reflection, too much cynicism, that sort of thing? Too much gulping, not enough chewing?

When the decorations are gone the place usually looks bare. And then we have the Narnia effect, which is what happens when you have to face a world that is cold, and dark, and overcast, and often brutal, and there are no lights and songs and cookies. That's a world in which it seems like it is "always winter, and never Christmas." I've often said that I which Christmas would come later, more in the middle of winter, for that reason. But as society rushes things more and more, it just gets earlier. The carols and the lights go up before there is a need in the northern hemisphere to even light your way.

But the way we treat the holiday itself reminds me of a piano teacher who reminded me (as all teachers remind their young students) that once I'd crescendoed to the climax, not to come off it too early. Stay there, I was told. You worked hard to get there. Revel in it for a moment. Don't just evaporate right away.

So I've been spending some time on top of that seasonal mountain we've all been trying to get to for so long. The difficult part is over. Sit and soak. Look at the tree. Enjoy some more cocoa. Ponder.

Eventually, though, it is time to move on. And that time is tonight.
this means you have a few more hours to listen to the Christmastide program on PianonoiseRadio. I'll take it down around 10 p.m., after I get home from the organist's guild post-Christmas party. If you missed it, there will be a pleasant hour of piano music in its place for January.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Snow on the mountain

Over the holidays, I had a performance in a neighboring state, and a lady came up afterward to say nice things. 

She was impressed that I had "snow on the mountain."

To persons of my generation this sounds like a maneuver from "the Karate Kid" but it actually refers to the fine art of curving one's fingers. A piano teacher of hers from decades past had told her that her hand ought to be sufficiently posed so that snow could accumulate on the back of the hand, thus "snow on the mountain."

I've not heard this one before. And I spent enough time studying with persons from the Fleischer school (like Fleischer) or other Americans (like the Serkin branch) who maintain that the fingers should be relatively (though not completely) flat (that is, only a slight curve), that it was a little bit of a surprise. Not completely. I realize my fingers are still somewhat curved. In years past (pre-college) they were probably more curved than they are now, but that was owing partially to my study with a Chinese student who stressed the curvation. 

In any case, it works. I find myself less strict on doctrine these days and more interested in what works. I find it difficult to imagine that one can get by without a certain amount of snow accumulating on the hands, but I would not set a minimum recommended snow accumulation there.

It is interesting what persons will pick up on. One person many years ago commented in an amateur setting that they could tell I knew what I was doing as soon as I put my hands on the keys, before I even played a note.

That should tell us something. And what it should tell us is that there is a reason we pay our teachers money to teach us. Some of these things don't come naturally, though they feel natural after the fact. 

At any rate, this is my first, re-gifted advice for the new year.

Remember to make sure you have "snow on the mountain."

And don't make too loud a noise while it is up there! You don't want to start an avalanche.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

bla-bla-bla-bla-blaaa bla bla bla blaaaa! (to the tune of Deck the Halls)

It's a Christmas trogladition.

You fellow cavers know what I mean. The rush is over, the stress is over, the holiday season is (mostly) over, and...whew! Let's all retreat into our caves and just sit and think. Or just sit.

I'll start things off with a momentous pronouncement....

I think I ate too much fudge.

We have a seven-person staff at Third Church (at least) and I decided to make peanut-butter fudge for them all for Christmas, deposited in pretty little colored bags in the church kitchen. Well, you have to taste each batch to make sure it came out all right. That is called quality control.

I think my clothes still fit.

And the way I make fudge is not an exact science. I don't necessarily put in a known quantity of each item. I simply dump some in until it tastes right. That is what is known as "fudging."

You've just learned something etymologically profound.

You can see how, under such a scheme, it would be completely necessary to do a lot of tasting. And if it turned out that you had made a little too much, that has to end up in your refrigerator as well, and, well, you can't just throw it out. so...

There was also the raisin wine at the party, which was quite good, and of which I only had enough to make my cat slightly drunk.* On me, though, it produced a strong headache the next day.

We went home to the relatives after Christmas, and practice the art of decimation on the cookie population. In the less strict sense of the word, of course. I did not only eat one in every ten cookies and leave the rest. But who is keeping statistics?

Well, for reasons of diet or stress release, or just that the good holiday vibes have finally kicked in a little late, or because it's frickin cold outside, I'm not inclined to do much of anythin
g today. So, Hyber-Nation, let's all retreat to our caves and...

You say you have to work today?

That's too bad. I usually write these blogs about a week in advance, and today is the day after Christmas and I'm more than a little listless, but I suppose future me will have managed to dust himself off and leave the cave and get to work, too. There is something nice about a fresh start.

Let's keep telling ourselves that.
*hypothetically, of course.