Thursday, November 30, 2006

Those who can . . .

I feel very fortunate that I have difficulty with a great many things having to do with music, because the fact that I have to face my difficulties every day makes me a better teacher. The instrumental teachers who have really helped me have all been people who worked all the time to improve their own playing. Teachers who have tried to show me how "easy" it is to do something on their instrument, using spoken phrases like "play it smoothly" or "play it like you are in a grand cathedral" have never given me anything I couldn't give myself. As far as I'm concerned, phrases like that are meaningless when it comes to directing the thousands of neural transmitters and hundreds of muscles in the hands and arms to do what an accomplished player would call a simple maneuver. Students need to be told exactly how to accomplish a task, and they need to have the task broken down into steps that can be followed. The only way I learn, even from myself (I am my own teacher now), is by breaking down tasks and identifying and separating the difficulties.

Drawing the bow in a straight line, for example, is simple in concept, but it is probably one of the most difficult things for a string player to do, especially in circumstances that involve difficult left hand manipulations and odd harmonic situations. It is a perennial difficulty for me, something I always have to work on improving. Because I have this difficulty I can notice it in my students and help them improve their bow arms (which improves everything else). If I didn't have this, as well as a whole slew of other "challenges," I believe that the development of my students would suffer. If everything came easily to me, I don't think I would be much of a teacher. If I didn't have to work for what I have accomplished and for what I will accomplish, I don't think that I would ever feel satisfied as a musician.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Food of Love

I guess my two constant creative activities are cooking food and composing music, and all of a sudden, while I was making vegan Chili today, I realized that they are quite similar.

First of all, cooking often requires a recipe. A piece of music in progress has one too: the instrumentation, form, key, and tempo of the piece. Cooking requires ingredients that work harmoniously together. So does a piece of music. Sometimes we use unusual food combinations (like sweetness and spice together--raisins and curry come to mind), and sometimes we use unusual harmonic combinations: dissonant intervals interspersed with consonant ones. Once the form is established in cooking, we have given parameters that we know will work, and we have ones that we know won't work. It is, for example, impossible to saute onions in raspberry jam.

My wastebasket has seen many examples of musical parallels to that sort of thing. If you want to have raspberries and onions in the same dish, you figure out ways of cooking the onions properly and adding the raspberries so that they do not fall apart and destroy your frying pan. If you want to have unlike elements working together in a piece of music you have to figure out a way for both (or all) of the elements to be heard. Every situation is different, and each problem needs its own unique solution.

After a lot of practice cooking you just know what ingredients work together. You can invent recipes based on classic models that taste totally different from their prototypes. It is the same with writing music. You can add an ethnic identity to a dish you are cooking with a combination of spices. You can do the same with a piece of music by incorporating harmonic or rhythmic elements and/or instruments from a particular culture, or you can combine elements from different cultures.

And then there's the question of taste...

Now it's time to get back to work.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Audio Musical Terms Dictionary

Wow. This Multimedia Music Dictionary from Virginia Tech is a pronouncing dictionary with audio clips of musical terms. It is a very useful tool, but it is also lots of fun to play with.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Way Leonard Rose Plays

Some very kind soul put this excerpt from an interview with Leonard Rose from The Way They Play on the Cello Heaven website. There's a lot of Dounis in Rose's approach to the cello. Actually, there's a lot of violin playing in his approach to the cello, which, translated into "cello," and articulated by an absolute master of the instrument, gives the lessons learned from Dounis a whole new meaning for me.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

What's in a pseudonym?

I'm working on a set of songs with lyrics by Arthur J. Lamb (yes, "A Bird in a Gilded Cage" is one of them), and I have had to do some major sleuthing to find more old songs with Lamb lyrics. There are a few by Dorothy Lee, a composer who is new to me. Of course I thought it odd that a woman who was that proflic in the America of the 1920s would, by this time, be celebrated, collected, and written about by people seeking advanced degrees in musicology.

Then I found out that Dorothy Lee was a pseudonym (one of many) used by John Stepan Zamecnik (1872-1953), a student of Dvorak who lived in Cleveland until he moved to Los Angeles in 1924 to write music for silent films. He published more than 1500 pieces of music under 21 different pseudonyms for the Sam Fox publishing company, of which these 14 have been confirmed:

Lionel Baxter
R.L. (Robert) Creighton
Arturo de Castro
"Josh and Ted"
J. (Jane) Hathaway
Kathryn Hawthorne
Roberta Hudson
Ioane Kawelo
Dorothy Lee
J. Edgar Lowell
Jules Reynard
F. (Frederick) Van Norman
Hal Vinton
Grant Wellesley

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Public Domain Sheet Music

I have to share this fantastic sheet music site that wants to be for sheet music what Project Gutenberg is for literature. The Mutopia Project has (so far) 756 pieces of music in the public domain to download for free as PDF files. Much of it is keyboard music for both organ and piano: lots of Bach, Chopin, Schumann, Diabelli, Mozart, and all of it is free and quite useful. There is also quite a collection of guitar music.

In addition to having the PDF file in both letter- and A4-sized documents, each piece comes with a downloadable MIDI file.

While I'm at it, here are a few more free sheet music sites:

Project Gutenberg has its own sheet music "department," and the Choral Public Domain Library has a tremendous collection of sheet music. They have been collecting music since 1998, and have 8324 scores to date. The Werner Icking Music Archive has other useful (and eclectic) pieces of information and links to various articles of interest, like a repository of common engraving mistakes.

I find this all very exciting.


Yesterday, while I was practicing my "Daily Dounis," I hit upon something that sounded like Paganini. Just for fun, after I was finished with my Dounis, I opened up my Paganini Caprices to look for the specific passage. I was totally surprised to find that I could actually navigate my way through many of the Caprices, and actually realized that they are a lot of fun to play (not that I was really playing them) because they are so well written for the violin.

Today, after my Dounis, I think I might even pick one and start to work on it! It's really hard for me to believe that this is possible. I always thought that being able to play Paganini was one of those unreachable goals; kind of like being able to reach a high shelf without a stool.

Well, it is on to the challenges of the day for me.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Musical Encounters up and down the fingerboard

When my kids were little we used to watch a show on PBS called "Musical Encounters." I believe it came from a West Coast television station, but wherever it was from, the show was remarkable. One show featured Josef Gingold and the 16-year-old Corey Cerovsek playing Wieniawski. Corey answered questions from the audience of young children about the dangers of playing in a tree house (what if a bird poops on your violin) and the paint on his violin ("actually, it's varnish" was a buzzword in our household for a while). Another show featured a pigtailed and freckled 9-year-old Leila Josefowicz storming through Boehm's Perpetual Motion, and another show featured two violin-playing brothers who were remarkable. When the audience asked them how they knew where the notes are on the violin, one brother's response was "you have to practice."

I often think of that simple statement when I am shifting around on the violin (or the viola today--it is an orchestra week, so I'm spending some quality time with my viola). Eventually we, by some mysterious alchemy and by a lot of practice, learn where the notes are up and down the strings the way we know where notes are in our own voices. It takes a long time, but once your body physically knows where a pitch is, the connection between hand and ear becomes automatic. It doesn't need to be interpreted by the conscious brain.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Four Greek Myths

Susan Nigro, the great American virtuoso of the contrabassoon, and Mark Lindeblad, her pianist-partner in musical adventures around and about the lower ledger lines of the bass clef, played my Four Greek Myths for contrabassoon and piano on a concert at Northwestern University in October. They sent me a recording that you can listen to here if you like.