Friday, December 02, 2016

Trumpet Sonata Recording by Thomas Pfotenhauer and Vincent Fuh

A mystery package from Minnesota showed up in my postal mailbox. Michael opened it up and said, "You're on this CD!" We immediately put it in the CD player, and I am pleased to report that the playing is just great. I found a link to it here, and ordered some more copies.

I knew something about this recording, but I had no idea what the timeframe for it was!

Today's New York Times Includes a Piece about Music Written by Women

Maybe the New York Times could make "A History of Classical Music (The Women-Only Version) a column with weekly installments (with audio clips). Alice Gregory has started something good here.

For future columns, here is an incomplete list to work from. (And then there is this blog . . . )

Monday, November 28, 2016

Thoughts About Musical Memory

I am impressed by people who can memorize music and then perform that music from memory. I have (thankfully) only had to do it a few times in my life. The first time was in a lesson with Julius Baker during my first year at Juilliard. I was playing a Casterede etude for him. He asked me if I could play it from memory, and I had practiced the piece so many times (for many years) that I was able to play it for him without looking at the music (It was a short etude, and I had just played it with the music in front of me.)

I must have been playing that etude by ear and by feel. I wouldn't say that I was playing it by memory. I don't know if I could have done it again. Luckily I didn't have to find out. When my mother studied with Julius Baker in the 1950s, she had to play everything from memory (which she could do: she had absolute pitch and an incredible memory). I'm grateful that Baker softened up a bit by the 1970s, but he was still impressed by people who could play from memory.

When playing scales and arpeggios on the flute without looking at music, I have to take time to think about what notes I might be playing. When playing scales and arpeggios on the viola or the violin, I have to think about what position I might happen to be in, what instrument I am playing, and what string I happen to be on before I could begin to tell you what scale or arpeggio I might be playing.

I do not memorize music well. I have tried. Again and again. I can rattle off songs I learned long ago, but my interpretation and understanding of them hasn't changed since my adolescent brain imprinted them in the "permanent" section of my memory banks. There are theme songs to television shows, songs from musicals and operettas I did in Junior High and High School, the first dozen or so lines of the poem, "Cut" by Sylvia Plath that I recited as part of an "avant garde" band piece we did in high school where everyone had to recite a different poem at the same time, songs I sang with my kids when they were little, much of the Mozart D major Flute Concerto, Syrinx, the Gluck melody from Orpheus, and the Baker set of daily warm-up excerpts. These are things I learned by rote.

I can make it through some of the first movement of the Bach E-major Partita on the violin without the music in front of me, but I always end up modulating to an impossible key before I realize that I have gotten myself off track. I can also make it through the first movement of the Bach G-major Cello Suite once in a while, and occasionally I surprise myself to find that I can play other movements in the Cello Suites without music. But I can't tell you which ones.

When I practice the E-major Partita (in A major on the viola) with music, I get new musical insights every time. And when I practice the G-major Cello Suite with music I learn something new every time. For me having the music in front of me allows me the freedom to group notes in new (for me) ways. Having the music in front of me helps me to really know where I have been, where I am, and where I am going. It gives me a foot hold. It helps me feel at ease playing in front of people. Playing with the music in front of me becomes more about the music than it does about my playing of the music.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Joy of Hard Work: Getting From Can't to Can

While I believe that every child should have the opportunity to participate in musical activities, and I think that it is beneficial to everyone to study an instrument (or voice) with a good teacher, I have learned from experience that the only people who truly succeed at playing a musical instrument are the people who get enjoyment from the hard work of practicing.

Getting from can't to can is a profound journey, and it is a journey I have taken many times with different instruments. I have finally found the instrument I love to practice most of all (the viola), and feel extremely fortunate that I have put in enough work so that I use the word "can't" only rarely. I also love the journey between can't and can with the viola as much as I appreciate being able to play my instrument in a way that expresses my deepest inner voice. And every new piece allows for the possibility of a new and interesting journey.

In my nearly 40 years of teaching (nearly 40 years!), the students who seem to have gotten the greatest benefit from studying music are the students who enjoy the process of making improvements in their playing by taking baby steps: notching passages with a metronome, becoming aware of how they feel when using their playing mechanisms efficiently, and gaining an understanding of the possibilities to be found in a musical phrase.

Some people are "wired" to practice and play, and some people are "wired" to do other things. People who do not get pleasure out of the process of practicing might find that they get more pleasure out of the process of working hard at something other than music. My hope is that my students who no longer play find an area of concentration that asks them to work hard, and that they find joy in the process of improving in their area of concentration through consistent work. I also hope that they keep music in their lives and do not associate no longer playing with a sense of failure. And then there is the secret pie-in-the-sky hope that when they get to a point in their lives where they want to try playing again, I hope that they find new enjoyment in the hard work that all of us have to do in order to get from can't to can.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

New Mozart Flute Concerto?

I saw a notice that the very first performance of a recently-discovered flute concerto by W. A. Mozart will be live-streamed from Istanbul on December 2 by way of Tutti Mozart's FaceBook page, but it is not clear (to me, at least) if this is a work that is totally original or a piece written by Johann Baptist Wendling with some help from Mozart. Somehow I imagine that a discovery of a new Mozart concerto would have made large ripples in the musicological ether. I can't seem to find any at this point.

People interested will have to do some calculations regarding the time of the concert, taking the International Date Line into consideration. I might sit this one out, but I'm sharing the link here anyway.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Off Topic, But On My Mind

Michael mentioned that I hadn't written anything about this election on my blog, so I decided to interrupt my scales to say what is distracting me from practicing them properly. I'll be brief. Music is a distraction that I need to fill the larger part of my brain right now because the only positive thing I can see in Tuesday's election of Donald Trump is the possibility of a way out of a Trump presidency.

There is one that makes sense to me. You can read about it in Douglas Anthony Cooper's article in yesterday's Huffington Post. Cooper reminds us of the real purpose of the electoral college as envisioned by Alexander Hamilton:
Trump can still be stopped. The Founding Fathers foresaw just this catastrophe, and built a fail-safe into the Constitution. It’s called the Electoral College. Alexander Hamilton was explicit: this mechanism was designed to ensure that “the office of president will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.” In short, it was designed to prevent just this situation: the rise of an unqualified demagogue like Donald Trump.
Cooper suggests that we should all write to elected officials (both Democratic and Republican) in the states that voted for Trump to consider their electoral college options.

I think that most of the people reading this blog would agree, regardless of the party they support (or don't support), that we need to use whatever power (within the Constitution) we can to prevent this would-be autocrat from being inaugurated.

OK. I'm going back to my scales. I have been putting special focus on minor keys these days.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Gravitas: Ballad for Americans

I find it interesting to compare these two recordings:

Here's an obituary for Earl Robinson, the composer.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Reading Aloud

The latest adventure that Michael and I have had in our Four Seasons Book Club (we meet during all four seasons, in the living room, and generally after lunch) is reading the Odyssey out loud, swapping readers whenever there is a break in the text. Michael has read and taught the poem (in various translations) dozens of times, and this was my maiden voyage. What a tremendous experience it was to play the parts of both poet and audience in this re-enactment of such an important oral/aural tradition. It helped to really enjoy the work itself.

The act of reading out loud is quite different from the act of reading without speaking. Our eyes need to scan far ahead in order to make sense of the words we are reading. And when the lines I am reading are lines of poetry in translation, I find that I have to pay a different kind of attention to context, because the flow of the text is not necessarily predictable or natural. If the text is rhythmic and has a rhyme scheme, it is far easier to allow the words to trip off the tongue.

When we sightread music we are always preparing in our inner ears for what is ahead. Music set in regular rhythmic and harmonic patterns is far easier to sightread than music with irregular rhythmic patterns, and it is far easier to sightread a piece or passage when we can understand, by the experience of having played similar music, its harmonic logic.

I was thinking about this the other day while teaching a student who found herself tripping over otherwise straightforward notes in a passage. I took out a book and asked her to read a sentence or two. (She prefaced her reading with saying that she was horrible at reading aloud, but I found that she was perfectly good at it.) I asked her to observe the way her eyes and ears worked when she was reading aloud. Then we went back to the musical passage in question, and she found that she could expand her field of vision and inner ear the same way when reading music.

(For today's meeting of the reading club--after lunch, in the living room--we are going back to silent reading. And Balzac is on the menu.)

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Transcriptions for Viola and Piano of Russian Music Concert on November 12

It's that time of year again. For our November concert John David and I have raided the coffers of Russian music written for instruments other than the viola, and our program is made totally of transcriptions.

We're playing my hot-and-not-quite-off-the-press transcription of the Rachmaninoff Cello Sonata that will be published by the International Music Company in 2017, and my brand new transcriptions of three pieces from Reinhold Glière's Opus 35: the Chanson and Andante, written originally for oboe; and the Moment musical, written originally for cello. We are also playing two "Album Leaves" from his Opus 51, which is originally for cello, and the Romance, Opus 3, which is originally for violin.

I have put the transcribed viola parts for the Glière in the IMSLP, and you can have a look at them (and download them if you want) through the above links (you'll find them all under the "transcription" tabs. The piano parts are all unchanged.

For people in the neighborhood reading this, the concert will be at 4:00 on Saturday, November 12th at the Wesley Methodist Church on Fourth Street in Charleston, just south of the university on the west side of the street. There is ample parking, and admission is free.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Donald J. Giovanni

An article in Slate lets us know that yesterday that a live a Metropolitan Opera performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni aired on movie screens across the country. There's a repeat movie theater broadcast on Wednesday at 6:30 Eastern Time.

The similarities between the two Dons abound. The Met is making an excellent statement by broadcasting this opera at precisely this time.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Finally! A Composition Contest I Can Enter

[You'll have to click the image to read the text without glasses.]

Thank you Michael Kurek for creating the above piece of art for this fine contest.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Trio for Clarinet (Violin), Viola, and Piano

Thank you to the members of the Nexus 3 Trio for this excellent performance!

You can find the music here.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Kol Nidre

[The person taking the video started a few measures in . . .]

Happy New Year to all!

You can find the music here (look under "transcriptions").

Monday, October 10, 2016

Preparing to Inhale

Three of my violin students happen to also play the flute. I consider it tremendous fortune to be able to teach them because I find myself identifying all sorts of "flute brain" things that happen that can hamper good violin playing. And then sometimes a violin-based observation can identify a flute problem.

For instance, one student has the habit of picking up all of her fingers when she lifts her bow. My sense of flute reflex (which has been activated of late because I have been practicing the flute every day) made me think of the way I tend to lift my fingers off the flute keys when I take a breath. She told me that she does the same thing when playing the flute.

While practicing the flute the other day, I noticed how often I pick up my fingers when I take a breath, and how much better everything sounds and feels when I keep my fingers on the keys while taking in air. Perhaps the process of inhalation is more complete without lifting the fingers because the only muscles that are working are the ones that control breathing, so all the energy goes to the task at hand.

I'm excited to talk about this with my recorder student (who will be here soon).

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Waiting to Exhale (or Blow, or Bow, or Move the Air)

We had a discussion about air during yesterday's Renaissance consort meeting. A new person to the group, a professional oboe player in civilian life, mentioned that she felt out of breath playing the alto recorder, to which two members replied that their shawm teacher tells them not to "blow," but rather to "exhale" through the instrument.

My thoughts waited a day or so before they collected themselves, so I'll share my observations here.

When I play the recorder or the flute I think about using the tongue to move the air through the instrument and out into the world. Exhaling is too passive for me, and blowing without using the tongue to move the airstream feels like a waste of air. I find that exhaling by itself lacks purpose and direction, because it doesn't take the all-important tongue into consideration. I always use the tongue to push the air, and then I use it to move the air stream through the instrument. A certain amount of "blowing" does happen, but it only happens once the air column has been set into motion.

When I play viola or violin I begin my bow stroke with a combination of right-hand fingers and wrist. I find that they function together much like a tongue functions when playing the flute or the recorder. Then I use a combination of my fingers, hand, wrist, arm, and shoulder to move the bow and regulate its speed and pressure. The movement starts (or keeps) the string vibrating, which in turn sets the wood and the air inside the instrument into motion. When I move the bow, I push or pull the air (up bow is the same as push and down bow is the same as pull) out of the instrument. It's nothing like blowing, though once the bow is in motion, it feels a little like exhaling. It particularly feels like exhaling when I actually exhale while moving the bow.

We inhale and exhale while playing a stringed instrument (because we can, and because we have to in order to live). It feels both life-enhancing and music-enhancing. The act of inhaling and exhaling when playing strings does not make sound or prepare to make sound. What happens inside the body (what you cannot see) has little bearing on the way notes are produced. When playing a wind instrument the outside of the body (the part that you can see) remains relatively still. Physical movement (aside from the fingers, the breathing mechanism, and the occasional combination of lip and cheek) is superfluous; it does nothing to improve sound quality or musical expression.