Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Remembering Leo Wright




I spent the autumn of 1981 in Vienna, Austria. I left a teaching job I had in a little mountain town, and found myself enrolled as a student at the Hochschule studying recorder. I also developed an interest in jazz, and thought that it would be interesting to learn how to improvise like a jazz musician. A friend of mine recommended that I go and hear a jazz pianist named Fritz Pauer, so I went to a jazz club where he was playing (Vienna was awash with Jazz clubs in the early 1980s). I found myself sitting at a table with an American, so I introduced myself. After establishing the "wheres" of our American-ness, I told him that I was a flutist. He beamed. He was one too. When I told him that I studied with Julius Baker he was in awe. Julius Baker was his favorite flutist.

This man was Leo Wright. He was at this particular jazz club because his wife Ellie Wright was singing there. She sang in a wonderful stylized English that completely masked the fact that she was from Vienna.

Leo was in his early 50s and was in the process of recovering from a stroke. He had difficulty moving his right hand, but he was determined to get his playing back. In his prime he was one of the most versatile saxophonists around, as well as an extremely agile flutist. He had a huge international career, playing with Dizzy Gillespie in the 1960s, and making wonderful recordings. By the end of the evening we agreed to trade lessons. I would try to teach him to play the flute like Julius Baker, and he would try to teach me to swing. In order to accomplish these tasks we spent a lot of time together.

He was kind of like a surrogate father to me in Vienna. He and Ellie taught me to be proud of my American-ness. Ellie encouraged me to read Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer which set me firmly on the path towards becoming a reader and loving literature.

I taught Leo to breathe by using his diaphragm. He never had adequate flute lessons (it seems that people didn't know much about the function of the diaphragm in playing the flute before the 1970s) and never learned to breathe properly. I believed that there would be a connection between this new (for him) type of breathing and his ability to relax and re-connect musically with his right hand. Somehow this connection worked. Eventually he was able to play again, and he made a big comeback several months after I left Vienna.

Leo used to bring me to jazz clubs all the time, and he used to encourage me to sit in with the musicians who were playing. Everyone respected Leo, so I guess they took a chance on me. I might have made a serious fool of myself, but Leo never let on that he thought so. I still learned a lot from Leo. As far as my learning to "swing" was concerned, I learned to appreciate good jazz playing, but I have never been able to play like a jazz musician myself.

I learned about dedication from Leo. Even when he was unable to use his right hand at all, Leo practiced long tones on the saxophone using only his left hand. I learned from Leo that the spirit of a musician is a very strong thing, and that a that the power of positive thinking is far stronger than I ever imagined it could be. I also learned about the particular strengths that I had myself.

Music is hanging around the air in Vienna. It always has been there, and it probably will always be there. Fritz Pauer told me that it has something to do with the water that flows in the underwater canals. Even in the silence of the night in Vienna, there is a certain musical rhythm in the air. Anyway, one day while I was walking in Vienna I started singing a tune. I figured it must have been something that I heard, but I couldn't place it. I sang it for Leo, and he had never heard it before either. He helped me harmonize it with jazz chords, and I let it rattle around in my brain for about 20 years until I turned it into a piece for string quartet that I called "Good-bye to Vienna." Of course I dedicated it to Leo, who is no longer alive in body, but will always be alive in spirit.



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Thursday, December 08, 2005

Starting Late

I have always been a late starter. I played the violin when I was a child and stopped within a few years for various reasons. When I needed to play an instrument as a teenager (needed meant that I needed to find a way to express myself), I started playing the flute. I was 13. Most of the flutists around me had been playing for several years, so I had to make up for lost time. I practiced every day for at least three hours. I listened to flute recordings, and I copied the attributes of the flutists I liked (there were only a handful in the 1970s). I practiced until midnight and woke up at 5:00 a.m. to practice so that I never had more than five hours between practice sessions. I practiced during school whenever I had free periods. I practiced scales and etudes all the time. I auditioned for Juilliard when I was 16, and I got accepted. I still felt like I was years behind everyone else--that I got in by a fluke, and that somehow I had fooled everyone.

When I started playing the recorder at the age of 22, it was easy to do. I just followed the pattern I used to learn to play the flute. When I started to play baroque flute at the age of 24, it came pretty quickly because I was used to starting things late. When I started playing violin for real at 32, it was a bit different. Things didn't go as quickly. It takes about five years to understand the left hand of the violin, and about ten to understand the right hand. It is a life-long process, but I'm happy that now, at 46 I have the same struggles with the violin and the viola that most string players have. I am beginning to understand the left hand and the right hand. Now that I have played violin and viola for thirteen years, I no longer feel like I am fooling anyone. I can play with confidence among my peers. I still practice every day.

I started writing music seriously at the age of 40. I had written music before I turned 40, but at 40 I decided to study composition, which meant that I had a person who I could show my pieces to. I wrote piece after piece. It was almost as if I had a backlog of pieces "under construction" floating around in the back of my mind that just needed to be written down.

I think that for me the pattern of starting late and making up for lost time has wonderful advantages. It helps you to understand the value of time spent building something. Starting late has made me a better teacher. When an adult beginner comes to me for lessons, I can distinctly remember how difficult it was to learn certain physical aspects of learning to play, and can also distinctly remember the process of transcending those difficulties.

Fourteen years ago I didn't play the violin, and I couldn't have imagined myself either playing the violin or daring to call myself a composer. Those fourteen years have passed at the same rate they would have if I didn't feel compelled to learn to play the instrument or compose; but since I have filled those years with doing what I love best, they have been the best years of my life.

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Sunday, December 04, 2005

Musical Soup

After eating some cabbage soup my husband made for dinner, I started thinking about a piece by Satie about cabbage soup, which led me to search and find this collection of songs about soup.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Nostalgia for the Boston Symphony in the 1960s

I just listened and watched a DVD recording of Berlioz's "L'Enfance du Christ" made from a concert given in 1966 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This recording made it clear to me just how wonderful an orchestra the Boston Symphony was in the 1960s. I was impressed by the individuality and character in the sounds of the winds, and the pure beauty in the sound of the string section. There is a striking difference between the no-nonsense conducting by Munch and the hyper-emotional conducting that is so often practiced by conductors today. It was both a refreshing and an enlightening experience to see this.

VAI has a clip from the DVD on their website.

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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Remembering David Diamond

I was listening to a recording of the Grosse Fugue this morning, and the Grosse Fugue always reminds me of David Diamond.

At Juilliard, students were able to take "Literature and Materials of Music" classes with the composers on the faculty, and my second year I took a course on the fugue with David Diamond. Of course we listened to the Beethoven "Grosse Fugue." While it was playing Mr. Diamond shouted out the different parts of the fugue. He made sure to point out (loudly) all the statements of the subject, the answers, the episodes, and the strettos. After it was over he asked, "Miss Fine, what did you think of that?" to which I replied, "Mr. Diamond, I couldn't hear it." He said that he understood, and that he had been trying to hear the piece for years.

Right before Thanksgiving break I asked Mr. Diamond where he was going for Thanksgiving. He told me that he was going to Rochester to see his family. I told him that I had an uncle in Rochester, my great uncle Milton, Milton Bohrod, and I asked in an innocent way if Mr. Diamond might know him. Mr. Diamond replied, "I have played in a string quartet with Milton Bohrod for twenty-five years."

I didn't expect that. Actually, I didn't even know that Uncle Milton played the violin!

Mr. Diamond took a liking to me, and he told me about a book that was very important to him, something that I "must read." It was by Cyril Scott Music, Its Secret Influence Through the Ages. It opened a whole world concerning the idea of music and mysticism to me. I still own the book, and find that it has its unusual (some would say wacky) charms, but because Mr. Diamond recommeneded it to me I read it carefully and took it seriously. I guess that Mr. Diamond's Fugue class and Cyril Scott's book must have made strong marks on my psyche. I imagine that this is the kind of legacy Mr. Diamond would have wanted, and that is why I am sharing this memory.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Melinda and Melinda

Last night my family and I watched Woody Allen's 2004 film Melinda and Melinda. It had some terrific acting, particularly Radha Mitchell's ability to play the two contrasting Melinda roles so well, and Will Ferrell's ability to play Woody Allen as a plausible love interest so well. The film had the unlikely presence of not one but three pianists as romantic characters (one for each of the Melindas, and one for Melinda's friend-rival—actually you can count Melinda as one of the pianists, which brings the total to four), and one of them was even a composer.

Then there was a musical soundtrack that had lots of Ellington, Garner, and Hyman, the Stravinsky Violin Concerto (there was a line, "You certainly know your Stravinsky") and the Bartok Fourth Quartet featured prominently—even played on camera by the Shanghai Quartet and discussed slightly in the booth at a recording session. There is mention of Mahler's Second Symphony, and the principal players are even seen leaving a concert at Carnegie Hall discussing the "second movement" of something on the way out. There were also implausible musical moments: a performance of a Bach Prelude at a party by the soon-to-be love interest pianist (he entered as the "help" and I assume he left as a guest) that morphed into a four-hand version without the addition of the lower parts of the piano. One pianist got up and the other continued, but the remaining pianist was not sitting in a plausible spot for her hands to play the notes they were playing. There were also other scads of other implausibilities that you can read about in the reviews.

Then there is a scene in a movie theatre (probably the Thalia) where the soundtrack of the movie the actors are watching is billed in the credits as a piece by Brahms (which it was, in part), but the people who wrote the musical credits at the end of the movie neglected to mention that the slow movement from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony was in there too. (My daughter said to me "I love that. That's Beethoven's Seventh, right?"). I started wondering if Brahms had lifted the Beethoven's Seventh Slow movement and inserted it into his piece. I don't think so.

All in all I enjoyed the movie immensely.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Going into Music as a Profession

Thirty years ago I had my eyes and ears wide open. I understood a great deal about the business of music, but I still chose to go ahead and seek a musical education. I went to The Juilliard School of Music, one of the best conservatories in the country (some would say the world), and I came out of it with the hope that I would find work as a musician (I was a flutist at the time). I was lucky. I did find work as a musician, but it was not anything like the orchestra job that, as a teenager, I imagined I would get. It was also not in America.

My first job was teaching recorder and flute (mostly recorder) in a little town in Austria where one of my duties was to don a drndl and march in the town band for funerals. Later I had my taste of professional orchestral life subbing in the Hong Kong Philharmonic which came bundled with insecurities and never turned into a "real job." Many musicians from my generation went out of the country to find work. Some made lives in other countries, but many returned to look for jobs outside of music to support their musical habits.

After I retuned to America I married a great guy and moved to a small town in Illinois where I worked as the classical music director at a radio station (I learned how to do it on the job) and did a small amount of flute playing. I didn't have a master's degree, so I could not get a job teaching at the local university. I didn't get a master's degree because I didn't think it was ethical to encourage flutists to go into music as a profession.

Then I switched instruments: I learned to play the violin, and then learned to play the viola. After practicing at least three hours a day for several years, I was able to play in a professional string quartet. I got work playing string quartets for weddings and playing string quartet concerts. When the work is plentiful I make around $5,000 a year playing. Add a few freelance orchestral jobs to that and the amount I make playing my instrument goes up $2,000 or so.

I decided to get a master's degree in composition, and now that I have a master's degree I am qualified to teach music appreciation at a community college, which still does not bring my yearly wages above the poverty level. I also make a little bit of money as a composer (very little) and as a critic (very, very, little) and as a writer. These activities take a huge amount of time, and the amount of money I make per hour of work is not worth measuring or mentioning. These activities are labors of love.

I am thankful that I am married to a person who understands my need to be a musician and is able to support our family financially. My advice to anyone determined to go into music as a profession is to marry well (meaning marry someone who understands your musical needs and is able to support them) and to get a real education. Learn about the world. Learn to use your brain. Learn about history and science. Learn to read literature. Learn to write. Learn how to find happiness in things that do not cost money. Play concerts. Share your love of music with people, especially your children and/or other people's children.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Van Loon's Lives

When I feel out of sorts I often go to my bookshelf and pick out a book that I might have bought when I felt out of sorts at some earlier time. The book I picked up yesterday was Van Loon's Lives by Hendrik Willem van Loon. I bought it at a used book store thinking that it was the book I tried to read in second grade (I wanted to read every book in the school library, and this was the biggest one of all) called The Story of Mankind by the same writer. When I realized I had the wrong book it went on my book shelf and sat there for a few years, until yesterday.

The book, written in 1942, is a series of scenarios involving dinner parties with various people from various times history. Some dinner party "groups" are made of people who lived at around the same time, and some groups are made of people who lived in entirely different times from one another. Van Loon introduces each guest to the reader, he and his wife have to decide what to serve, and we get to read about their dinner discussion. Here are some of the chapters that involve musicians:

Chapter IV: This Time Erasmus Had a Surprise for Us, and we Make the Acquaintance of the BACHS and the BREUGHELS

In the course of this chapter the host plays Bach a recording of his Toccata and Fugue as orchestrated by Stokowski, and Bach is not impressed. He thinks it sounds like something Vivaldi might have written before he learned to write. J.S. Bach is joined by his ancestors and his sons, and W.F. does a considerable amount of drinking. Of course the Bachs spent much of the evening playing music while the Breughels painted their portraits.

There is reference also to dinner guest from another evening, Francois Marie Arouet de Voltaire (I learned his full name from this book), who was impressed with Frits' (another member of the party-giving crew) typewriter. "If I had one of those contraptions," he said, playing with the keys, "I might have done a little writing."

Chapter XI: SAINT FRANCIS, H.C. ANDERSEN, and MOZART Come, But They Do Not Come Alone

Chapter XVII: And Now a Rather Strange Combination, EMILY DICKINSON and FREDERICK CHOPIN, But Emily Has the Time of Her Life, and Chopin Shows us What Can Be Done With a Minni-Piano

This book is sure to keep me "in sorts" for a long time.

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Thursday, November 10, 2005

My Experience with the Mozart Effect

When I was about 13 and beginning to learn algebra I used to listen to a recording of Mozart's 20th Symphony when I did my math homework. For some reason it seemed to help me, and while I was listening I actually seemed to understand what I was doing. Unfortunately nobody played Mozart's 20th Symphony when I was in math class or when we had tests, so I never really got good at math, but I did learn to love Mozart.

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Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Random Thoughts about Listening to Recordings

Because I work as a record reviewer, much of the listening I do could be thought of by some as work. When I listen to a recording that I am planning to review I need to pay attention to what I hear and figure out something to say about it that might be useful to someone who may or may not be interested in what I have to say. Those readers may or may not go out and buy that particular recording, and if any of them do, each person would certainly have a different experience listening to the recordings I write about. I hope that I'm doing some good.

My concern as a record reviewer is to try and hear what the people who participated in the making of a particular recording, including the composer of the music, put into it. This requires listening beyond the surface. It is very important to be honest. If what I write is true (and there are many truths when it comes to writing subjectively) then I am happy.

I rarely have any contact with any of the people who make the recordings I review, even when they are people I once knew, and it is equally rare that anyone makes any kind of comment about a review I have written. It is a kind of lonely way of communicating, but listening to recordings has become a rather solitary act thanks to portable stereos and ipods. Even listening to the radio is usually a solitary act. People tend to listen alone in their cars. Once in a while two people might be listening at the same time in a car, but I believe it is rare to have a really communal listening experience listening to classical music on the radio. There is certainly no communication with the person sitting in the radio station who decided to play that particular recording and press the button to have it play.

In a way listening to recordings is the opposite experience from being in the audience at a concert. A recording you can turn off if you are tired of it, but at a concert you would be disruptive or even insulting if you got up and left. If you happen to be listening to a recording with someone else, you can make comments out loud about the music (another concert no-no). If you want to listen to something again on a recording, it takes no more effort than pressing a button. In a concert you would have to wait unti the end of the piece and yell "encore!" Even then the performers would probably play a selection they prepared for their "encore," and would not repeat the exact movement or section of a movement you would have liked to have heard again. It would also surely be different from the performance you would have just heard, because no two performances of any piece are exactly the same, even when played by the same people in the same place, and for the same audience.

At a concert (one that is not being recorded) you can share a collective experience of a moment in time that happens only once and will never happen again.

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Friday, November 04, 2005

Is it a trend or an exception?

Last night my husband Michael and I played for "open mic night" at a local coffee house. Michael is a jazz guitarist and plays like one, and I improvise on the violin like a composer. Still, we get along musically and have developed a respect for each other's style. Anyway, we played a couple of old "standard" songs last night and had a really good time playing. What impressed me most about the evening however, was the kind attentiveness of the audience. The performing area of the coffee house was packed with mostly college and high school students, and nobody talked during any of the performances (we stayed for two hours). It almost seemed to me that the people who were there last night (people in their later teens and twenties!) had a kind of need to participate in live performance either as a performer or as a listener. In this media-drenched age it fills me with hope.

Is this particular coffee house an isolated island of highly civilized behavior, or does this reflect a general trend?

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Why do people go to concerts anyway?

Part of my musical life is spent going to concerts. I used to spend more time going to concerts when I lived in a city, but now that I live in a more rural area it seems that half of the concerts I attend are those I am playing in myself.

My major activity as a teenager (besides practicing) was going to concerts. I lived in Boston where there were always free concerts at the various universities and conservatories. I actually got to recognize members of the audience who seemed to "always be there." I suppose those people saw me as a person who was "always there" too, but one of the nice things about going to concerts in a city is that as part of the audience you can be among people, but you can also be with the music by yourself. There can be a tacit understanding between "regulars" that never needs to erupt into conversation. Sometimes those silent relationships are magical in themselves. It is, in a way, a luxury to be able to have the intimate contact that you have with the musicians playing and with the strangers sitting by you without having to say a word. For the time being there is a unique sense of community.

Playing concerts offers a similar experience. There are individuals in the audience, but when you are playing for them the line between each of the individuals seems to vanish. Everyone is experiencing the music. Some people are listening more intently than others (and I do believe that there is some kind of tacit communication between listeners, and those who listen with the most intensity somehow convey that sense of concentration to the other people in the audience) and some are only able to absorb what is on the surface. Still, it is the collective experience that makes concerts such special events. And as an instrumental musician I can communicate without having to use words.

Unfortunately when the music is over the experience is over.

One of the assignments I give to my music appreciation students is to go to a concert and write about it. I have 50 or so students, and only one of them has gone to a concert so far this semester. My hope is that my students will be sensitive to the delicate and rare sort of communication that happens during a concert of unamplified art music performed by people who have spent years learning how to play their instruments and months learning the music that they are playing on a particular concert.

I always hope that the concerts my students go to will be given in the spirit of universal music making. I always hope that the performers will maintain a sense of formality and offer their performance in the spirit of magic that I believe is ideal. Music is sacred and should be different from everything else. It is not simply entertainment. Entertainment can be found on television.

It is important to reach out to an audience with interesting programming. I always feel cheated with performing entities reach out to their audience with only music that is familiar. It is as if they think that their audience is not capable of listening to anything besides what they know. If performing entities do this for long enough, we will only hear the most familiar music on concert programs, and will have to turn to recordings to hear anything besides the warhorses of the repertoire.

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Friday, October 21, 2005

The Musical Meme

I have been reading a fantastic book by Howard Bloom called The Lucifer Principle and have come upon his discussion of the meme. For some this is "old hat" (the idea was invented and named in 1976, but for me the musical implications of the idea are very exciting).

Here is a link to a discussion of the musical meme by Keith Otis Edwards that I found interesting.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Why do we tune to A=440?

I found this fascinating bit of information on page 205 of the March 1918 issue of The Etude under the heading "Musical Questions Answered."

Q. Why is there still some dispute about pitch? We all supposed that the matter was settled by the adoption of "International" pitch (A=435), but now we have a good deal about an A-440.

A. The pitch of A=435 was fixed in Paris for a temperature of about 60 degrees, but in America and also England it is customary to have the theatres and concert halls considerably warmer (say about 70 degrees), and wind instruments rise in pitch with a rise of temperature. The oboe is commonly used to give the pitch to a large orchestra, and the same oboe which would give A=435 at 60 degrees would give A=440 at 70 degrees, approximately. Theoretically the expansion of the material of a wind instrument when heated would lower the tone by increasing its size, but the effect is so slight as to be negligible, whereas the effect of a different temperature of the surrounding air is very plainly noticeable.

Here is some more pitch-related information.

Friday, June 24, 2005

The Rude, the Vulgar, and the Polite

From Peter Van der Merwe's Roots of the Classical: The Popular Origins of Western Music
This deep faith in 'natural law' is a bond between early Romanticism and neoclassicism. Just as the architecture of ancient Greece was felt to be more 'natural' than that of Rome because it was earlier and simpler, so the 'noble savage' was assumed to be the superior of a cultivated eighteenth-century gentleman; and so, too, simple folk melody was held to be a great improvement on Baroque polyphony. Of course, it was all self-deception. very few eighteenth-century gentlemen ever met a savage, noble or ignoble; ancient Greek architecture was far from simple; and the much-admired 'folk melody' was an urban idealization that had little in common with the rustic reality. The bogus has always played a vital part in Romanticism.


Roots of the Classical at Oxford University Press

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Thursday, June 23, 2005

The BBC Beethoven Downloading Experiment

In loosewire there is a discussion concerning the BBC project to offer Beethoven Symphony performances for free download. Jeremy Wagstaff posed the following question:
But why is it that listening to free classical music is seen as a way of encouraging a broader interest in the genre (and, presumably, encouraging the listener to buy classical music) but when the music is pop, it’s seen as dangerous encroachment on the rights and prerogative of the music industry and has to be stamped out?
To which I responded:
The whole idea of music as "property" runs counter to the spirit of Beethoven. The whole idea of sharing a performance in this way seems completely in accord with the spirit of Beethoven. "Millionen" have already been "umschulgen" by this wonderful use of technology. When he wrote his music Beethoven expected to be paid for it once. He probably had the hope that his music would continue to live on after his death, but he and his contemporaries had no idea of "copyright" or "royalties" as we know it, and it is probably due to the lack of copyright and royalties that composers during the pre-copyright period (composers who are now firmly in the public domain) wrote so much music.

Nobody goes into playing or even writing classical music for the money. A handful of Conductors and a few big soloists are the only performing musicians who actually get rich playing music, and a smaller handful of composers (mostly film and theatre composers) are able to make a good living. Those of us who play music for a living can sometimes make enough to stay alive and, if we are really lucky, raise a family, own a car, and buy a house. And we can usually only do those things if we teach and/or have a spouse with a good job.

The musicians who played these BBC performances of Beethoven Symphonies were paid for playing them. They are not losing any money at all. They are also creating a whole lot of good will, and are hopeful that by extending this gesture someone might get curious and will come to another performance of a Beethoven Symphony. Every performance is different, you know. They have the same notes, the same rhythms, and the same expression markings, but the way the music comes out is different for every performance.

It seems that people tend to seek careers in pop music to become rich and famous and have fun at the same time. Those who do not become rich and famous are usually struggling, and all they have to show for the considerable effort they have put into their careers is their recorded music. If someone else were to "take" their music, tweak it, re-package it, and sell it as their own, that would be immoral and even illegal.

If you were to do that with Beethoven, everyone would know it. That is why Beethoven is safe to broadcast in this way.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Why Study Music?

Steven Coburn, who runs a piano studio on Brooklyn, gives some excellent reasons for learning to play an instrument.

Click here to get to his webpage and click on "Why Study Music."

He mentions that learning to play (in his case) the piano helps people to learn to deal with pressure, respond to criticism without taking things personally, learn persistence, increase their focus, and manage projects.

I can't think of a more fulfilling way to work on inner growth (especially for adults) than to do it by playing music. I think that Mr. Coburn's reasons for playing make sense for both adults and children because we are all in the process of growing.

There are a few differences between studying music as a child and studying music as an adult. When you are a child your parents usually pay for lessons (unless you are Leonard Bernstein), and when you are an adult you usually pay for them yourself. Parents also make (or find) time for their children to practice, while adults have to find their own. Other differences are minor.

No matter how you look at it, what you can achieve personally from the study of music at any time is of great and lasting value. Also, music lessons cost a fraction of what you might pay for other kinds of professional help.

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Saturday, May 14, 2005

Critic Forum

I found a very interesting forum about classical music on line in a very unlikely place where well known music critics Kyle Gann, Greg Sandow, Lloyd Schwartz, Anne Midgette, and Anthony Tomasini answer some very basic (and very important) questions about classical music.

Click here
for the classical critics survey.

If you click here you will get to a class-by-class outline for Greg Sandow's course (taught in 1988 at Juilliard) concerning classical music in an age of pop.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Wilde thoughts about music

From The Critic as Artist by Oscar Wilde

"After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were not my own. Music always seems to me to produce that effect. It creates for one a past of which one has been ignorant, and fills one with a sense of sorrows that have been hidden from one's tears. I can fancy a man who had led a perfectly commonplace life, hearing by chance some curious piece of music, and suddenly discovering that his soul, without his being conscious of it, had passed through terrible experiences, and known fearful joys, or wild romantic loves, or great renunciations."

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Musical Uses for Index Cards

My family and I, along with thousands of people around the world, have gone index card crazy. For all the people who have followed the trail of index cards to this page, I can offer the way I use index cards for musical purposes.

I review CDs. Every other month I get a large stack to review for the American Record Guide. While I am listening for the first time, I jot down my thoughts about the recording on an index card. Then I slide the card into the CD case (it fits very well), and listen to the next CD in my stack. After I have listened to all the CDs, I refer to the notes on the index cards when I write my reviews.

Another way I use index cards is for teaching. Many of my students (and I assume all young students) need to be reminded of basic technical elements of playing all the time. When a student is working on a piece or an etude I use a paper clip to attach a brightly-colored (young students like bright colors) index card to the opposite page with guidelines written on it. When the student needs to be reminded of something technical I simply point at the item on the index card, making it unnecessary to make the student stop playing to make the technical adjustment. When the student has overcome the particular technical difficulties listed on the card, s/he can keep the index card for future reference. One student likes this method because she says the index card acts as a bookmark. I like this method because it leaves the printed music open for written directions that have more to do with music than technique.

Related Post: More Musical Uses for Index Cards

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Monday, April 11, 2005

From "Something to Say..." by Leonard Bernstein

In The Infinite Variety of Music, written in 1966, Leonard Bernstein discusses his method of writing music involving a kind of "trance state."

"All art recognizes the art the perceded it, or recognizes the presence of the art preceding it. So that it is not unlikely that your concept, the idea that will come to you in this trance, has something to do with music that has preceded it. And, in fact, even those composers who call themselves 'experimental' composers (and who are dedicated to the idea of writing music that is different from all other music that preceded it, making their music valuable only because it is different from earlier music) are admitting their recognition of the presence of art that preceded their own, because their art is still being written in terms of the art that preceded it--only this time in antithesis instead of imitation. Is that too confused? Yes. To put it another way, even experiemental composers, revolutionary composers, self-styled radicals, are, in writing revolutionary music, recognizing the music that preceded them precisely by trying to avoid it. Therefore, in a sense they are composing in terms of the music that preceded them."

"But more important than this, the concept is conditioned by this crazy, compulsive urge to say something. We always hear a distinction made between good and bad creators on the ground that the good creator had something to say--'Something To Say' is the big, magic phrase--and the bad artist didn't have 'Something To Say.'"

Leonard Bernstein

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Another Romantic Age of Music

It seems to be the law of art that when men are troubled in their souls they turn to such aesthetic diversions as will allow them to forget everything but their bodies. When their troubles are material and physical, they search for an art that will help them to escape from the body. We have passed through the first sort of trouble, and are into the second, which means that the days of Weber and Schumann and Wagner are about to dawn again. Another romantic age of music is not far off.

Deems Taylor Of Men and Music 1945

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Remembering Julius Baker

I first met Julius Baker in 1975. When I arrived at his home in Brewster, New York and saw a poster on his wall that had the caption "Play Papa a Polka on your Piccolo," my first question for him was if he knew the song "Piccolo Pete." His response I will never forget. He said "I am Piccolo Pete." Julius Baker then told me that he had been a guest on a television show where he played the song as part of a rather outrageous act. This seemed at odds with the impression I had of Julius Baker from recordings, and I understood that there was far more to Julius Baker the person than a beautiful flute sound, tremendous musical sensitivity, and an impeccable technique.

When I entered Julius Baker’s class at Juilliard in 1976 I was in stellar company. Mr. Baker liked to think of his students as a small society, and many of us developed very strong friendships. Many of our lessons were taught like masterclasses, and we all got to know one another’s playing very well.

Mr. Baker was not afraid to favor one student over another or tout the talents of a younger student who had just entered the school. He did not give career advice (at least not to me) and he did not go out of his way to push any of his students into advantageous positions in the musical world. Any advancement that any his students made came from that student’s desire to excel and achieve.

He also rarely talked about technique. He was so natural a player that I do not think that he was even able to break down his way of playing into components. He never discussed methods of breathing or the position of the tongue. He never talked about the process of making vibrato, though he always encouraged the use of it. He talked about “changing the tone” but he never articulated exactly how to do it. Mr. Baker assumed that if he asked one of his students to make a conceptual change in the music, his student would figure out the technical means necessary to do it. His teaching method did not involve hand-holding or self-esteem building, but he made it very clear that he was pleased when his students worked hard. He expected of his students what he expected of himself. Nothing more, and certainly nothing less.

Julius Baker taught me to listen with my mind. He taught me to understand the sensation of a beautiful tone, and most of all, because of the public nature of our lessons, he taught me how to listen to students the way he listened to them. He also taught me how to pay special attention to detail. His years as a studio musician taught him how to get the most expression out of even the most mundane succession of notes. When he was faced with music that was interesting, and particularly music that interested him, he could make a passage really shine. He taught me how to see the possibilities in the music I was playing, and most of all, he taught me how to open myself up to the possibilities of expression that were inside of me.

Mr. Baker strove to expose us to greatness, and his primary example of greatness was Jascha Heifetz. He encouraged his students to listen to Heifetz recordings. I did this to an extreme and eventually gave up the flute in later adulthood and returned to the violin, my first instrument. Julius Baker also began as a violinist. I always thought he let me into his class because we both had similar musical beginnings. Julius Baker’s father played the flute and my mother played the flute. My mother studied with Julius Baker when he was in the Chicago Symphony, and he never forgot her because he liked her name: June Blume.

Julius Baker had a heart attack shortly before I met him, and during my first year at Juilliard he was serious about jogging and encouraged his students to jog as well. He transferred his concern for his own health onto his students, something that I found very endearing, especially since many of us were very young and were living away from home for the first time. He invited us often to his farm called “Baker’s Acres” where he kept bees and had a flock of geese and various assorted farm animals and house pets, including some of the gentlest Dobermans I have ever met. His wife Ruth was completely at home on their farm, and except for the beautiful flute music that wafted over the hills, his neighbors probably knew him more as a beekeeper than as a musician. I remember when he introduced me to his neighbor Shelly Secunda, son of Sholom Secunda who wrote “bei mir bist du shane,” he described Shelly’s major activity as “raising boys.”

A hopeless romantic, Mr. Baker would suddenly burst into song. I remember one day when it was about to rain, Mr. Baker had a collapsible umbrella that he held as if it were a normal umbrella, collapsed but not compressed. He began to sing “Let a Smile be your Umbrella,” and then nostalgically revealed something about the New York of his past. He loved to talk about his ham radio activities. He made friends with people all over the world. He made friends wherever he went. When he was in the hospital after his heart attack he shared a hospital room with a welder who taught him to weld after they both got out of the hospital.

He told me often about his father who used to write him letters in Yiddish. Though he was never a scholar or a linguist, he loved languages. He often referred to himself as Julio Panero (sort of like the god Pan) and used whatever words he knew in any language as often as he could to make people feel at home, except for French. He seemed to talk to each of his students in their own language too, and each of us had a unique experience.

He kidded around with his students. We took ourselves so very seriously, and he knew that we needed levity. I recall some of the names he gave to some of the flutists in his class: Sandy Synogogue, Mutt and Jeff, and General Patton. I was Fine and D’Indy.

I will never forget one morning when I woke up at Julius Baker’s house. It must have been around 6:00. Mr. Baker had just returned from jogging. He picked up his flute from the piano and he and Ruth, who was sitting at the piano, started playing “The Swan” by Saint-Saens. I thought that it was the most beautiful playing I had ever heard. I sat there with the dogs and cried.

One of the most valuable lessons I learned from Julius Baker is a lesson that he taught the way he taught everything else, by example. I learned from him that what was most important in life is who you are apart from what you do. He was always interested in what made each person unique, and never judged me for not following the path that I started on. We continued to be close after I gave up the flute in favor of the violin and the viola. I will always be grateful that I devoted so much of my early life to the flute because I had the opportunity to get to know Julius Baker so well.

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Saturday, February 12, 2005

Rebuilding the Audience for Classical Music

The musical world as we see it today is a mass of contradictions. The level of technical musicianship among young people today is extraordinarily high because we have so many well-trained teachers. Thirty years ago students of popular instruments considering serious music study had between ten and twenty fine teachers to choose from who where teaching in prestigious colleges and conservatories (less popular instruments like the oboe, for example, had fewer teachers). Now students have hundreds of competent (and often excellent) teachers to choose from teaching at all kinds of colleges (including affordable state universities) who take extraordinary pride in their teaching, knowing that their own opportunities as soloists are severely limited by the lack of demand for soloists and orchestral musicians in the music market.

Many of these students, especially the string players, had the benefit of Suzuki training, which, when taught properly, can lead the way to the development of a fine technique at an early age. Music has enriched the lives of many of these students, and many choose to pursue music as a career because it is what they love most. Many believe that music provides a valid contribution to society. They are supported by their parents, their teachers, and their school community, but when they find themselves in the “real world” it becomes clear that during the years that they were developing as musicians their peers were becoming increasingly unaware of the value of music, especially live music.

The formal study of music education as a discipline is alive and well within colleges and universities. There are whole courses of study devoted to pedagogy—how to teach, and the school systems that still value instrumental and choral music programs as vital components of their plan for education benefit from band directors and choir directors with training far superior to band directors from previous generations.

For the informed music listener we live in a time of virtual paradise. Recordings are available of just about every piece by the composers we consider “major” composers, and recordings are available of the complete works of composers we might consider “minor” composers. Recordings are available by composers we have only read about in history books, and recordings are available by composers who only appear in footnotes in history books. If a recording is not available of a piece, it is quite easy to make a recording of exceptional quality, duplicate it professionally, and make it available to the whole world by way of the internet.

Many musicians who saw the difficulty of pursuing a performing career as the gates of musical opportunity were beginning to close in the 1970s and 1980s, devoted their passion for music to the study of musicology. These scholars have made extraordinary discoveries concerning performance practice of early music and connections between music and society. There are very few subjects concerning musicology that extremely smart scholars haven’t written something about, though the current musicological journals are far more limited in their scope these days because the agendas of academic musical scholarship have moved away (temporarily, I hope) from the substance of music itself. Virtually all published musical scholarship is available to anyone with a library card through the interlibrary loan system.

Other musicians found their true calling in instrument making. We now have exponentially more fine instrument makers than we had 30 years ago. It is now possible to special order an instrument made to exact specifications: a duplicate of a historical instrument, an instrument with a specific ergonomic shape to help ease stress on the body, an instrument made out of a specific material or made to play at a specific pitch. There are student string instruments being made that are extremely affordable, and bows made of synthetic material that play as well as bows made of rare rainforest woods. Many of the makers of these instruments are able to make a living because they can advertise their trade in widely-read music publications and on the internet. They are accessible from anywhere in the world so they can have their workshops in places that allow more space and require lower rents than they would have in major cities.

Music has made its way into the smaller cities of America. There are excellent community orchestras in smaller cities all over the country, and there are ample opportunities to hear concerts in places where parking is not a problem. Now children living more than 100 miles from a major city can get the same quality of musical training as children living in major cities. Many parents who have fled the city to raise their children in a more peaceful and less stressful environment support the teaching studios of thousands of private teachers living in smaller cities and towns because they believe that the study of music is beneficial for the overall development of their children.

What is wrong with this picture? In a way these developments represent an ideal situation for music to continue to grow and thrive in this country, but one major component of the musical ecosystem is missing. Somehow while we were teaching our musicians to play better, teach better, and think about music in new ways, we have lost our audience.

The thriving audience for music in America during the 19th century and first half of the 20th century didn’t just happen. It had to be built. A young America built squarely on industrialism had a generation of wealthy children who wanted to bring attributes of European culture to America. They imported musicians from France and Germany, built concert halls, and provided the necessary funding for professional symphony orchestras to begin giving concerts. When America started to “grow” its own soloists (like the violinists Albert Spaulding and Maud Powell) and its own composers (like George Gershwin) it was a major cultural accomplishment for the entire population, even those people who did not live in major cities. After the Homestead Act, high schools in the West made sure to include music in their courses of study. Appreciation of the arts went hand in glove with a well-rounded education when America was creating itself.

The piano industry also found its strongest market in America. Pianos could be delivered by train to any city with a train station. People played piano for recreation and entertainment, and people had an increased interest in hearing the instrument played well.
As political situations became more difficult for European musicians during the years of the two World Wars, more and more musicians from Europe immigrated to America, and America enjoyed its greatest musical times. Along with this gift of talent from Europe came the need to understand it, so many people put themselves to the task of educating the public through publications, lectures, concerts, and recordings. Maud Powell’s recordings were originally intended to introduce people in the remote American cities where she toured to the music that she was planning to play during her visits. Early recordings were never intended to replace live performances, but rather to remind and inform people about music.

Radio became a vibrant stage for music. Radio stations had their own orchestras, and a large body of first-rate musicians made their living playing on the radio. Many first performances of important musical works happened in live radio broadcasts. Radio brought music into every home in America. Because of the quality of the broadcasts and the importance of music to the people who ran the programs, the radio became vitally important in the musical education of America.

Early television was booming with musical talent. The original talk show host Jack Paar regularly had the pianist Oscar Levant as a guest on his show. Harpo Marx was seriously interested in music (though he never learned to read and played the harp backwards). Fred Rogers was a composer before he began his work on children’s television, and wrote many operas for children using the puppets in his neighborhood. The musical climate of Southern California was so lively that the violinist Jascha Heifetz chose to live there until the end of his life.

Early television put a great deal of effort into music education, and Leonard Bernstein’s educational television programs introduced thousands and thousands of people to music. His Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic became a model for many orchestras to follow. Bernstein, who received his musical education later in life than many professional musicians, understood the importance of early exposure and to music and also the importance of speaking to the intelligence of young people instead of pandering to their need for entertainment. His audience became the audience of music lovers that supported American orchestras and chamber music ensembles into the 1970s.

Suddenly the bottom dropped out of the education system, and by the end of the 1970s every state in American made drastic cuts to their music programs. It is possible that people assumed that the audience for live classical music would remain strong, or it is possible that at that time American society was so twisted and confused that these cuts were made without any thought at all about the cultural cost that the country would pay for reducing music programs.

It is sort of like exposing only the students who have a genuine interest in writing fiction to reading. Our music education programs have failed in educating a whole generation of people who have put what could have developed into a love for the music played by their peers into other things. Now this generation of people in their thirties and forties who have never been taught to listen to music with any depth fail to see the importance of music in our society, and these people are making financial decisions that end up destroying musical institutions simply because they don’t know what they are doing.

If we want to continue to have live art music (the word “classical” implies music from a limited range of styles) alive in our society we need to change the way it is presented to students in schools. We need to teach students to love listening to music as an activity in itself. We need to involve them in the ritual of concert-going and teach them the beauty of allowing the emotional “meaning” of the music that they hear touch them. They need to hear people play in concerts and they need to learn that their participation in a musical experience as a member of an audience is as vital as the participation of the people playing.

We need to sensitize young people to the emotional range of music making, and teach them to appreciate the fact that one musician’s interpretation of a composer’s work can be wildly different from another musician’s interpretation and still have validity and meaning. We need to teach all of our audiences to listen carefully to the musicians who live in their cities and towns and support the work they do. The quality of a musical performance has no relation to the price of a ticket, but it does depend on an intelligent audience.

The financial burden of supporting musical organizations has been carried by relatively few members of our society. If we succeed in developing a large and vital audience for music to balance our large and vital population of performing musicians, and those people each contribute a small share to the economy that supports live music we might find ourselves living in the best of all musical worlds.

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Monday, February 07, 2005

Reconsidering Perfection

Arnold Schoenberg in 1936:
…although the premier of this quartet was exceptionally well presented by Master Rosé and his wonderful string quartet, one knows that perfection cannot be expected at the very first performance. So it was this second string quartet about which a gentleman once asked me whether I had got it already in a perfect manner.
I had to answer, “Yes, during the composing.” Now, since the Kolish Quartet exists, and thanks to my friend Alfred Newman, who gave me the opportunity to record these compositions, everybody, and even myself are in the position to hear it in a perfect manner, in a perfect performance.
Arnold Schoenberg recorded this comment as part of a 1937 recording of his complete string quartets. This set of recordings, along with several other pieces, has recently been reissued on the Music & Arts label in a set called “In Honor of Rudolf Kolish.”

This comment bothered me a great deal when I first heard, and it continues to bother me. It bothers me because I believe that the word “perfection” is terribly restrictive, and that striving for it can get in the way of having satisfying musical experiences.

I would like to believe that Schoenberg would agree with me and react to his recorded statement as something that he simply said at the time, under the pressure of having to sound authoritative. Schoenberg, like the rest of us, was not perfect.

I have heard thousands of performances played by people who memorized every single note, dynamic marking, and articulation marking of a piece. Some of these people replicated the score exactly, but lacked the “room” to make a personal statement or allow a sense of joy to come into the music making.

Performing musicians so often imagine that the composer of the piece they are playing is an authoritarian Schoenberg-like figure that requires those who play his or her music to act only as the composer's “voice.” It is a shame that people think of music in that way, because most of the composers I know get very excited about hearing their music interpreted by other people who can illuminate it with humanity, experience, and perspective.

The relationship between the interpreter and the composer, whether the composer is alive or dead, should be a highly creative one, but any kind of creative relationship allows for lapses in what might be an objective sense of “perfection.”

In order to allow for more fulfilling musical experiences I have decided to limit my use of the word “perfection” to non artistic matters. I would also like to eradicate the terms perfect intonation, perfect rhythm, perfect technique, and perfect performance from my vocabulary.

Perfect intonation simply doesn’t exist. Even though people like Schoenberg tried to do away with the importance of tonality during the first part of the 20th century, most of the music we play, whether old or new, is grounded in some kind of tonality. Working within the tonal system, by its very nature, requires constant adjustment. When playing chamber music or solo music with a pianist, the temperament of the piano becomes the force by which we measure where to place our notes so that they sound in tune. When playing chamber music without a piano we must also adjust our intonation constantly, especially when the music we play modulates or where the distances between notes played by one or more of the players exceed the span of an octave. Because of the limitations created by its frets, playing with a guitar requires an even greater set of adjustments.

When playing chamber music with wind players, each musician must adjust to the natural places where notes fall on particular instruments and in particular registers. When playing wind music with non tertian harmonies, all the rules of “just intonation” regarding the relative position of thirds are useless.

One of the technological advances used in working on intonation is the electronic tuning device. Relying on this “authority” for where a pitch should “be” as determined by mathematical calculations is useful in only the most rudimentary musical situations (like establishing an initial “A” at the beginning of a rehearsal). During a chromatic modulation, a sensitive ear (or two) is far more useful as a guide than an electronic pitch that does not understand what is happening to the notes around it. Intonation is best worked out on a note-by-note and interval-by-interval basis, and it should be discussed among players in a friendly and “relative” manner. When we become angry or insecure about what we hear, we become tense, and it becomes difficult to listen properly. Intervals that are in tune resonate, and it is this resonance that makes music sound beautiful. Perhaps a more attainable goal for intonation would be to work for uniformity, beauty, balance, and resonance rather than “perfection.”

Perfect rhythm is also a term that bothers me. Accurate rhythm is what happens when music swings along at a natural and even pace, with subdivisions that happen to enhance the flow of the music. In all the music we play notes are either going somewhere, coming from somewhere, or staying somewhere for a while. In most of the music we play the notes are doing all three things at the same time. Although it is useful to practice with a metronome in order for our bodies to feel the even flow of the music, we need to internalize this rhythmic sense by feeling the rhythm rather than “beating” it. Perhaps a goal for a more satisfying sense of rhythmic motion in music would be to strive for a natural, internal, and organic rhythmic swing rather than for “perfection.”

The struggle for “perfect technique” very often cancels itself out by creating a technique that contains a great deal of tension. There is really no such thing as a single “perfect technique” for any instrument. We all have different body types and play instruments that require various fine adjustments in order to get them to produce the sounds we want them to produce. Perhaps we should strive to build our technique with the goals of strength, flexibility, comfort, and structure.

Once we remove the struggle for perfection from the various pre-requisites of performing (intonation, rhythm, technique) it seems out of context to imagine a “perfect performance.” In our search for resonance and beautiful intonation, natural rhythmic flow, with notes moving naturally, and a relaxed and flexible technique, all sorts of unexpected expressive surprises might happen in a performance that no musician could plan, explain, or even fully understand. That is the mystery and the beauty of music.

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