Monday, August 16, 2010
Playing with Records
I didn't have a huge number of records (I'm talking about LPs) when I was growing up, and during my preteen years, we didn't even have a working record player (imagine--in a household of musicians). When I was in the 7th grade, I was given (after I got up the courage to ask) a cassette player and a few cassette recordings of age-appropriate music (I remember Tapestry, Deja Vu, and a James Taylor cassette), and I used to spend a lot of time listening late at night to an old Zenith radio that my parents had abandoned.
Perhaps it is when one of the radio tubes blew and could not be replaced (I recall hauling the heavy thing to the hardware store, and being very disappointed) that I got my first working record player. It was a high-class hybrid KLH model 20 that played at four speeds (16, 33, 45, and 78), and, unlike the one pictured below, had a radio tuner. We got it nearly new: it had only been used during the summer at Tanglewood, in the music library.
My father got a turntable and speakers made by AR that fall. It didn't have a radio or any other bells and whistles, and it only played at 33 r.p.m.
I found a stash of my parents' old records in the attic (a lot of Columbia chamber music recordings from various Casals festivals during the 1950s), and my father started buying new records. I had just started playing the flute, but there were not that many flute recordings around, except for recordings by Jean-Pierre Rampal. I preferred listening to non-flute recordings anyway (though I did like listening to recordings by Julius Baker). I had a flute-playing friend who had a whole series of "Music Minus One" recordings. I had no idea how to get any of those, so I remember buying a Rampal record and trying to play along with it. I was surprised to find that the recording was about half a tone sharp. I used the 16 r.p.m. setting to slow down that 33 r.p.m. recording to half speed, and I rather enjoyed listening to the uneven sloppiness in his playing.
When I was getting ready to audition for Juilliard, I had the idea of practicing my G-major Mozart Concerto with the Julius Baker recording (he actually sounded pretty good at 16 r.p.m). I decided that I would play the slow movement for my audition (I imagined that everyone else would be playing the fast movements), and I thought that playing along with the recording would help me to get inside of Julius Baker's musical head. I made a little star in my music every time he changed color, and I made sure to change my tone color in some way (but not the same way) at each of those points.
I guess it worked. I got in.
I had great times with my KLH. I even figured out how to wire my cassette player/recorder to make the sound go through the speakers.
Julius Baker used to tell his students to listen to recordings of Heifetz. I didn't have any Heifetz recordings (I guess I considered him too commercial for my eclectic tastes), but my friend Danny Morganstern had everything. I listened to the whole Heifetz collection (as it was the late 1970s) with him during the summer between my second and third years at Juilliard, and he gave me cassette tapes to take home. I got bought a few choice pieces at Patelson's, and used my "enhanced" audio system to play along with Heifetz on the flute (I particularly loved playing the Saint-Saens D minor Sonata with him and Emanuel Bay). I actually had my teacher's attention (a rare occurrence) at a lesson after one of my evenings with Mr. Heifetz. I never told him my secret.
Danny, who always plays with records, told me that if you play along with a recording, you are playing along with a really great musician's best work. Listening is one thing, but actually experiencing the physical movement involved in playing a piece (or even a passage of a piece) brings you right into the head of the people playing. I still play with recordings, and I sometimes play along with recordings that I get to review. You can learn an awful lot by joining in the dance, especially when playing an inner voice.