Friday, January 31, 2020

Glenshaw? Glensha!

Last week I set up shop at a friendly little pipe organ north of Pittsburgh in the community of Glenshaw. Today I'm going to let you hear something I recorded on it, entirely gratuitously. I had just decided a day or so earlier it might be worth learning and recording a festive little piece by Samuel Scheidt known as Bergomasca (named for a region in north Italy whence came a rather addictive chord progression and a dance based on same). Since I like to let the voices of the various organs I come across in my travels speak for themselves whether I give a full concert on them or not (as in this case), I suddenly realized that this might be a nice test piece for said organ. So rather than playing the whole thing on a pleasant four-foot flute stop, I thought that each of the 21 very short variations should have its own sonic combination.

Now given that I had barely even learned to play the piece (I think I'd practiced it for maybe two days) it was an additional challenge to deploy the stop tabs every 8 seconds (I told you the variations were short!) but I took the challenge with no premeditated plan. Also I played the piece three times for even more variety. I was going to post them all, but then I decided that you have places to go and that even one listen is pretty indulgent of you.

So here it is. I realize a video would have been much more entertaining, but if you listen really carefully you just might be able to hear little blips between the sections when I am hastily depressing the stop tabs while thinking "hmm, this looks like a good combination"--like I said, I did not do a whole lot of preparation. Enjoy!

Scheidt: Bergomasca

and for additional stimulation, this week's edition of awaits.
*the title is a weird reference to a Dr. Who episode. If you were thinking I'd lost my marbles, why yes I have, thank you.

Friday, January 24, 2020

On location

One of the joys of playing the pipe organ is that each one is unique. That is true for pianos to some degree as well: each well made piano (particularly Steinways) have a unique sound. Last summer I had a chance to play the "Mr. Rogers" piano when it was still at WQED across from the studio where the show was taped. As I sat down at the piano I thought I'd play a little Mozart, but then suddenly "It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" and the trolley theme came out. It was surreal, because it sounded so much like what I'd heard coming through my television as a child. It was the same piano, playing the same music. It was like recognizing a familiar voice.

Pianos aren't always that easy to adjust to, however. The action can vary considerably, meaning it might be a lot harder to get the keys to go down. In other cases, you can practically just breathe on them. One of the scariest moments of my career was sitting down at an unfamiliar piano on which I had had no opportunity to rehearse and having to begin the concert with a very very very soft chord which I had to calibrate just right by sheer guesswork. I am happy to report that on this occasion I got it right, and the atmosphere was set for a very nice recital.

With the organ there is an entirely new dimension, however. The very sounds the the organ makes can be different. There is that standard family of sounds: foundation stops, flute stops, string stops, mixture stops, mutation stops, and so on, but they may be grouped differently on each manual. There may only be a few of each type, or a whole lot, depending on the size of the organ. The logic behind grouping those sounds, and getting the organ to do its best for you will change as well, dependent on the builder and their philosophy of sound, as well as the era in which it was built or the country of origin.

That can make things a challenge, but it is also a great deal of fun if you like variety. It will also mean that certain pieces sound best on different organs.

Today I paid a visit to Glenshaw, which is a small community northeast of Pittsburgh. I'll be playing on Monday's chapter meeting of the American Guild of Organists. The theme this time is "free and easy" meaning stuff that you can find online at the International Music Score Library Project (, and that can be played on next to no practice. I didn't really need to go up there to practice for such a simple performance--about a dozen of us are playing one piece each--but it was an excuse to get to know the organ and see what it could do. I got to spend an hour with it this morning. I also made a recording of the piece I'm playing on Monday so you can hear it as well.

Ashford: Postlude for Festival Occasions

I had already recorded this on my "home" organ (at the church where I regularly play), but this organ, while smaller, really holds its own. In fact, I suspect this is closer to the kind of "harmonium" instruments that would have been a part of the composer's 19th century America, and most often performances would have taken place on a similar sounding instrument in a similarly dry acoustic. Hurrah for authenticity!

Next week I'll post something else I recorded that really puts the organ through its paces and shows what all of the stops sound like.
to see what else the "pianonoiser" has been up to this week, go to

Friday, January 17, 2020

How to get your student to actually remember the G sharp

There's a meme going around among piano teachers which shows a cat with an extremely surprised face, and the caption indicates that it is the teacher's reaction when the student is playing something in the key of A Major and "actually remembers the G sharp!"

It's a big hit with teachers, of course, because teachers like knowing that other teachers are just as frustrated as they are about the same issues. And the cat is really cute.

That isn't going to stop your student from continuing to abuse the G natural, though, and you might be wondering if there is a better way to go through life than to pleasantly remind them every time they do that. I thought I'd offer a few observations. The first is that the primary way I was taught to do this, by playing scales, is largely a waste of time.

Memorizing key signatures often seems irrelevant to the student, much like asking what happened in 1858. Scales can be the muscular equivalent of that. If you are going to have the student start every lesson with scales, which students almost universally hate, why not try something different?

Your approach can depend largely on the personality of the student: a few times I have actually taught all of the scales in one lesson, rather than parceling them out a week at a time and trusting the student to remember what A Major is supposed to feel like when it is needed. In these cases I go all the way around the circle of fifths and have the student play each scale while explaining how the system works. And the students actually enjoyed it. In fact, they had fun! This avoids the problem of parceling things out a bit at a time and making scales into a thing that you just have to do at the start of every practice, which have nothing to do with the music you want to play, and are an inviolable pattern of boring notes.

Understanding the entire system of keys is something you can try (mainly with older students, I think)--not to mention that it will seem like a challenge to do them all at once, and that can be exciting!, but if you are stuck on one scale a week, then don't let that scale remain an unthinking up-to-the top down-to-the-bottom routine. Change up the fingerings. Have the student try 1 2 3 2 3 4 3 4 5 4 5 6, etc. or 1 2 3 4 2 3 4 5 3 4 5 6 and so on. If you have an engaging personality you can get lots of things to sound fun that aren't if you don't. The idea here is that the student has to learn to think in A major rather than just put it on auto-pilot and cruise up an down in a familiar pattern that, even if mastered, does not guarantee that G sharp is going to seem a preferable alternative to g natural in measure 7 of their new piece, in the right hand. There needs to be a connection.

And here's where it gets weird. The one thing that has helped me the most, I think, has nothing to do with scales. I learned to improvise. Make up my own tunes. Quite a useful skill when you have a deadline and no time to practice, or suddenly have to fill time with music at a party or a church service that you didn't know about beforehand. If you have to create something in A Major, you think about it more. Have the student make up melodies using A major. The G# has to be reinforced every time you need it, randomly, in the wild, on demand, and while thinking about other things (like how I want to melody to go) rather than as a thing that happens near the top of a pattern I don't want to play.

As always, the keys are to make one have to think about it--often, and to reinforce the idea--often, rather than the make that G sharp something that exists out there in the ether that I have to do because teacher reminds me to do it once every six weeks when I have a piece with a G-sharp in it. Then I don't remember because: who needs to know? If it's part of a system I understand, it it is a challenge I like to undertake, if it is a pattern I use frequently, if it is just plain fun because I like the feel of a raised fourth finger, things are quite different. Ultimately success motivates and carries the rest of it along.

Of course, if the student never sees a piano between lessons this will be less effective. Eventually you should make room in your studio for somebody who does notice an instrument once in a while.

But in the meantime, give them a reason to know their g-sharps. Eventually it will seem natural. Pardon the pun.

Now get out there and look sharp!

Friday, January 10, 2020

The Lighter Side of the Organ

This month's PianonoiseRadio program features pieces that are tuneful, fun, and light for an instrument that many of us think only plays for solemn occasions. Although the repertoire does tend in a theater organ direction, there are no actual pieces for theater organ, nor did I record anything on one. The accompanying, picture, however, shows me sitting at the console of the Mighty Wurlitzer at the restored vaudeville theater in Champaign, Illinois, for a New Year's Eve concert with The Chorale, trying not to look down, or to knock the elevator switch off of the bench (it was not attached!). I know, it doesn't look like I'm up very high in the picture, but the pit is about 10 feet below the stage, so there is some height involved if you look straight down from the bench.

The first piece on the program is something I discovered last month on an organist's online group. The Postlude for Festival Occasions was written by Emma Louise Ashford, presumably to be played at the conclusion of a church service, and quite likely on a harmonium, or pump organ. I recorded it at my church on a large Allen using the Skinner sample set. Everything sounds more theatrical when you employ the tremolo.

Louis James Alfred Lefebre-Wely seems to have had the same attitude toward church music as Ms. Ashford, because the Sortie that follows (French for "exit" meaning a postlude for church) is just as light and fun as the previous selection. Lefebre-Wely was frequently badgered by colleagues who didn't think he was taking his vocation seriously enough.

In case we need a pause after all that festivity, the next piece is slow and peaceful. Charles Marie Alkan was a child prodigy who spent most of his later life in self-imposed isolation. His 13 prayers were probably written for the harmonium (ie, the pump organ) but I again played it on a full-blooded church organ. This second of the set was sufficiently melodious to make the cut. And again I made use of the tremolo.

Edwin Lamare was a virtuouso English organist who spent a couple of years in Pittsburgh as the civic organist (back when they had those); the organ he presided over is currently in disrepair and unplayable. I recorded his pastorale a couple of years ago. It is also a pleasant little piece, not too difficult, except for the part where he insists on making one hand play on two manuals at once (thumbing down).

We are back at church, which I admit is a strange place to spend half a program dedicated to just having a little fun and relaxation, but some organists have approached their task with more solemnity than others. Domeinco Zipoli wrote this ditty for the place in the service when the priest is cleaning up after the eucharist.

A few years ago I played a house concert (it had a large ground floor; about 50 people managed to get in) and I included a piece by Jean Phillip Rameau to begin. While I had a volume of his pieces with me, I recorded a few others, including this little gem, which was intended for harpsichord, but I thought it would sound nice on the organ. I was right.

The first thing I remember about the Mozart Rondo all Turca, which I recorded as part of a set of sonatas on the organ because our piano was out of tune at the time, is how exhausted I was the afternoon I recorded it. If I hadn't told you you wouldn't have known; such is the magic of recording. I am rested and feeling much better a year later!

The year I had cancer I remember hearing this Lemmens Pastorale on an internet radio station devoted to the organ 24/7. It sounded like a nice little piece I should play once I was feeling better. And indeed, it is now associated in my mind with my first Christmas in Pittsburgh. The part in the middle with the weird sounds may have caused the comment from a parishioner at a church where I subbed one Sunday that "the organ doesn't normally sound like that." No, I'm sure it doesn't, but when the composer asks for something unusual, you can either lock him up, or---give it to him!

We'll conclude with Lefebure-Wely's other most famous piece (depending on who you read it is the most famous or it is the other one). This one was recorded in 2014 in Illinois at an organ rededication concert and is from the period of my first discovery of this interesting man and his music. I've since played it at Heinz Chapel here in Pittsburgh (but did not record it), and this year finally got around to the other postlude/Sortie, the one in Bb which you heard earlier, eminating from the lovely Austin at Westminster Presbyterian whence I concertized this past summer.

For those of you who enjoy reading the manual, thanks for lending me your eyeballs. Now you can join the rest of your fellow listeners and enjoy the music!

and of course, there is a whole lot more this week at

Friday, January 3, 2020

The Gospel according to Herod

Apparently the garbage dump at Oxyrhynchus continues to disgorge its secrets. After giving us unknown gospels and new copies of canonic scripture, another bombshell find has emerged. This fragment, from the 1st century BCE, has been waiting patiently for an English translation for several years, and now, at a liturgically opportune time, it has been released to the public, where, I imagine, it may raise a few eyebrows, but it will certainly add to our knowledge of Roman rule in ancient Palestine. And, given that its subject has never been known to speak for himself, it will help us form a more complete picture of the events surrounding the birth of one of history's most famous figures and the founder of a major religion. As Mark Twain observed when introducing some letters that he claimed were written by the devil himself, we never get to hear his side. So, just to be fair and objective and give equal time to all sides, which rarely happens with this story (so much partisanship!), here are some lines from the Gospel According to Herod....

[ the first part of the scroll is lost] administration in the history of Palestine. And we're building. So much building. People have never seen anything like it. First we built the biggest fortresses. You can't attack these places. They're impossible. Even the Roman generals said we wouldn't even try to get into one of your fortresses. They should have your fortresses in Rome.

Then we built a temple. Some temple. huh? When I got here the temple was a total mess. They didn't know how to build a temple. People said it wasn't as good as the first one. They called it Zubbel's rubble. What a dump. He wasn't born here, you know. A lot of people don't know what. He wasn't born in this country. He's from Persia. That's what you get with a guy from Persia. Don't let the Persians build anything. They don't know. But we're making the temple Great again.

And our economy is booming. It's the best ever. When I took office Lebanon was ripping us off. Total rip off. I said, what do you want? They said Cedars from Lebanon. I said done. Now we have so many Cedars, and the metal for the nails is the best. Before they said we can't get the nails into the wood because they're too short. By the time you pound it through a guy's wrist there's no room to get it into the wood. I said, you want longer nails I can get you longer nails. It's easy. Hundreds of years, nobody could get longer nails. I got longer nails. Now they can't put the crosses up fast enough.

And crime is down. I put Herod Jr. in charge of crime. Hasn't he done a great job?

But they're still not happy. You know who I'm talking about. You know who I'm talking about.

The Jews.

They're trying to get rid of me, folks. They've been at it for a long time. They are very bad people.

The other day these guys came to me from the East. I said, where are you from? They said we're from the East. That's what they said.

I said, what are your names? And they had these funny foreign names. They were talking and nobody could understand them. I said its because they're speaking another language. They had to get a translator so everybody knew what they were saying. They have people listening in, did you know that? Not me. I don't need one.  If you're a genius that's how it works. But they couldn't understand these guys. I said, Why can't everybody just speak Roman? And you know they were up to no good. That's how you know. I said to the palace guards, nobody can pronounce these guy's names. They said not even you? I said, well I can pronounce some very difficult names. Nobody else can say them. The last king couldn't have done it. He wasn't very smart. Total puppet.

But these guys were from the East. That's all they said. And then they gave me these weird names that nobody would recognize. They wanted to fool everybody. But they weren't fooling me, not for a second. I said, these are not very nice people.

And they said, we're looking for a king. I said, I'm a king, are you looking for me? They said no, there's another king. Can you believe that? Another king. It's crazy.

And they were looking for him. They came to me asking where the other king was. How stupid do you have to be to look for another king in front of the first king? I said I'm right here. They said we don't want you. We want the other guy. I said what guy. They said the one who is to come.

How stupid is that? They're an embarrassment.

And by the way our poll numbers are better than anybody ever could have predicted. They didn't think we'd last for a second. But here we are. The best king in the history of Israel. David was OK, too, I guess. But people say to me, you know you are better than David and Solomon combined. That's what they tell me.

And these guys wanted somebody else. They said there's a prophecy. I said what prophecy. They said there's going to be a king over Israel. I said what do you need a king for, you've already got a king. The best king. Everybody says so.

They said there is going to be another one. And he hasn't been born yet. And we don't know where he is.

This is how stupid they are. They're trying to replace me, folks. And they can't even find a guy who is actually alive to do it. They want to do it with a baby. He'll come along eventually. A baby. Nasty people.

So we got our people together and they said the king is going to be born in Bethlehem. Bethlehem. It's a total dump. What a shithole. Nobody goes there.

But you know, it could have been somewhere else. I mean, who knows? What if it's in Samaria [Sebastia]? Or Galilee? They don't know.

So we sent them to Bethlehem. I said, hey, if they're in such a hurry to go to Bethlehem let them go to Bethlehem.

Then I called my people together and said let's kill all the children in Bethlehem. They said everybody? I said everybody. What do you think we're gonna do? knock on the door really nice and ask are you plotting to replace the king? What are they going to say, yes we are, come in and kill us?

Prophets, you know, are not very bright people. I'm much smarter than my prophets.

So we had them all killed. But I hear people say, but Herod, your visitors from the East got away! They didn't get away. I know where they are. I know where they are. And I want them to tell us who they really are. I have a right to know that. Everybody has a right to know that. Don't you want to know that? But I know where they are. You'll see. Trust me.

Then they told me you just fulfilled a prophecy. I said, our administration has fulfilled more prophecy than all the previous ones combined. We keep setting records for the most prophecy. It's really amazing. It's one of the best things that ever happened in the history of Israel. You'll see.


So this low-ratings loser evangelist wrote about us. Tried to make us look very bad. Very bad. Matthew is a nasty guy. Fake gospel. Nobody reads it. Mean Matthew. He's even worse than Loser Luke.

He says we did something terrible, folks. Does he not understand sarcasm? It was sarcasm. We didn't kill any children. It was all the Pharisees, folks. Really bad people. They killed everybody. I didn't want to kill anybody. They said, we're going to do it. I said why would you want to kill all those kids? They said we're going to do it. So, you know, that's the way that went. And now they're out there trying to make it look like the most horrible thing ever. They want to embarrass me, but it's the best thing that ever happened in Israel. But I'll tell you, with all the negative press co[the rest is missing]...