Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Taking the best way out

Are you a stick person or a carrot person?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 18, 2019

idom attic

Call it the windmill of the mind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

welcome to our strange little world. And good luck.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Who's that again?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Know Thyself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We'll try to figure that out next week.

Monday, February 11, 2019

hurrah, humanity!

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Getting to Nirvana

Practice is suffering.

We established that last week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 4, 2019

Filling in the Gaps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Count me in.

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

Friday, February 1, 2019

True to Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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