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.