Friday, August 30, 2019

On Re-reading Lord of the Rings

I recently I re-read J. R. R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings." From time to time I'll glance at my bookshelf and something I've previously read will ask to be read again. Why the Tolkien this time is curious.

I am in the middle of preparing a series of lecture-recitals with not nearly enough time to do it, a circumstance that was made possible by having multiple concert programs earlier this summer and a few others that have popped up since. So, like Sam and Frodo, who keep groaning that their quest is completely impossible and doomed to failure, but do what they can anyway, perhaps my sub-conscious is trying to get through! When I'm finished with this blog I'll get back to practicing. I've learned on dozens of occasions that it is ultimately possible to accomplish things that seemed impossible if you just put your head down and plow on. No time to worry about it, just do it.

The last time I read this epic tale must have been at least 30 years ago when I was a young teenager. Works of art conveniently stand still, but we do not--this is an observation I made first as a survival skill in college when I noted that Rachmaninoff could not make his concerto any harder than it already was but that I had the ability to keep gaining skill until I could overcome it. The fact that a work of art does not change and yet its observer cannot stand still can lead to all sorts of interesting observations, particularly if the last time you engaged with such a work you were a completely different person. Since my last exposure to the tale, as written, college, graduate skill, and miles of other books, movies, conversation, thoughts, and experiences have intervened. I have noticed any number of things about the books this time on any number of different levels that would not have made it into my system on the first pass. Here are a few:

As a teenager, I much preferred reading about Sam and Frodo to the portions of the book dealing with the kings of Gondor and Rohan and their battles and so on. I became rather impatient when Tolkien split the fellowship up into "books" and would write some 200 pages in each of the last two volumes about the adventures of Merry and Pippen before finally getting around to Frodo and Sam. This time, that didn't bother me as much. I have a much better attention span, and, while it is still a property of my brain to want to gloss over the names of this king and that soldier and these guys doing these glorious deeds (I don't think I'll ever be able to sit through the Silmarillian) I am a lot better at concentrating and can appreciate those intricate plot details much more. Not to mention being more comfortable with a story that fragments into multiple portions and has to follow the action in several directions. My world has expanded, why shouldn't my literature?

I've always enjoyed the idea of the epic tale, but this time, even though I spent most of a month leisurely reading my way through at intervals, it didn't seem so large. I think the first time it may have taken me all summer. I also remember reading it aloud to my brother on a car trips. That must have taken ages. And I have no idea how I would have pronounced some of the words I didn't know yet or what I would have made of some of the English expressions that don't make sense to Americans. The language seems to have changed on both sides of the Atlantic since then. I was struck by some of the expressions Tolkien used, including how a character was "in amaze." Not amazement, just amaze. If Tolkien were a Millenial he might have written "in amaze-balls!"

When Tolkien writes of the battles and the doings of the various kings, lords, and noble people, he shifts into a kind of epic style. Mostly this is characterized by beginning multiple sentence with the word "and." Although he never uses the phrase "and it came to pass" this seems to be the effect he is driving for. It can be a little off-putting, and it is either cheap or subtle depending on your predilection, but it is a conscious stylistic shift that is not present during the wanderings of Sam and Frodo, or the chronicling of day to day events, but only when the writer is concerned with the kinds of things that would, in a world such as ours, later make it into epic poetry to memorialize the event; in other words, policy decisions and the recording of battles and other mighty deeds.

In order to not turn this into an epic post I'll save my remaining observations for next time.

Friday, August 23, 2019

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.