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.

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