Thursday, April 30, 2015

It's That Time of Year Again!

Here's a link to my yearly addition to the viola d'amore repertoire, which is now in the IMSLP. You can also just listen to a computer-generated version here. I started this project around my 50th birthday by writing a 50-measure-long piece. Number 7 has 56 measures, because today is my 56th birthday. The tempo indication is "Vivace, but comfortable," which I guess is where I am in the grand arc of life.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

New York Lecture Concert Commemorating the 75th Anniversary of Emma Goldman's Death

In the last segment of his 5-part lecture series on Jewish Opera, Leonard J. Lehrman will be including some two-person scenes from my opera EMMA. Helene Williams will be singing the part of Emma Goldman, and Lehrman will be playing the piano and singing the parts of various men in Emma Goldman's life.

The lecture/concert will take place at 2:00 p.m. on Wednesday, May 13th, and will be held at the Community Church of New York, 40 East 35th Street (between Park Avenue and Madison Avenue). I am very excited that I will be able to hear it in person. It is an honor to have my work included in this tribute.

Here's a post from 2008 about my opera, and a link to the music.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Seymour, an Introduction

If you every find yourself having trouble explaining to someone non-musical why we musicians do what we do, introduce your friend (by taking him or her to the movies, or showing him or her the DVD when it comes out) to Seymour Bernstein. Michael and I saw the film yesterday. I'll let his thoughtful post about the film speak for both of us.

My personal feeling watching the film was one of extreme comfort. I felt musically energized, and ready to play last night's concert with all the musical connection and emotional engagement I wanted. (And it was a GREAT concert. Thanks, Seymour!)

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Four Centuries of Musical Instruments: The Marlowe A. Sigal Collection

Four Centuries of Musical Instruments
Schiffer Publishing, Atglen, PA
320 pages $69.99

When Marlowe A. Sigal was a teenager in Easton, Pennsylvania, he needed a tenor saxophone to join the high school band. His parents, who collected motorcycles, got him an 18-key Buescher Aristocrat tenor saxophone made in Elkhart, Indiana, in 1939. In 1960 Sigal's father gave him an out-of-commission Estey cottage organ (made in Brattleboro, Vermont in 1877) to restore, and in 1964 Marlowe Sigal started collecting harpsichords and pianos.

His collection of keyboard instrument grew. There are 8 harpsichords, 2 virginals, 2 spinets, 2 clavichords, 10 grand pianos, 11 upright pianos, 43 square pianos (!!!), 2 pipe organs, 4 practice keyboards, a desk piano, a lying harp piano, a keyboard carillon (think Die Zauberflöte), an awesome half round piano, a claviharpe (a cross between a piano and a harp), an orphica (a keyboard instrument held like a guitar), a dulictone, a bell piano (hammers strike metal bars), and a keyed monochord.

Sigal added wind instruments to the collection. There are 104 clarinets from various makers, beginning with his first metal Buescher "American Beauty" (1923). In the 1990s he added clarinets from the early 19th century (one of the early clarinets is a Grenser from 1807). Many are made from boxwood, and the instruments have a huge array of fingering systems and key configurations. The bores of the instruments also vary greatly. There is an American-made clarinet from 1865 made from ivory, and a plastic clarinet for children made around 1990 by Graham Lyons. There are bass clarinets, saxophones (14 of them, and even one with a slide), and 19th-century instruments that boggle the mind with their modern design.

The collection has all manner of double reeds: 52 oboes, 40 bassoons (with all their relatives) sarrusophones, a Rothphone, and even an intact rackett from the 18th century. Most interesting are two examples of "cup-mouthpiece" instruments: a bass horn and a Russian bassoon. I am, of course, extremely interested in Sigal's collection of 187 flute and whistle instruments, 132 of which are transverse flutes. The earliest transverse flute is a one-keyed ivory instrument from 1730, and the earliest recorders are from 1710. There is an 1818 glass flute from Paris, a Louis Lot from 1883, and dozens and dozens of instruments that I have never heard about before.

Marlowe's string instrument and percussion instrument collection is relatively small, but he does have a nice array that includes a pocket violin, a rebab, and a zither.

The book weighs close to six pounds, and aside from a few pages of text about the collection, a guide to abbreviations, a bibliography, a maker's index, and an index that organizes instruments by city and country of origin, it is a 300-page catalog filled with remarkable photographs of wonderful instruments. The collection is organized by instrument type, and each entry has a catalog number indicating when the instrument entered the collection. The book is beautifully bound, and the pages open completely, allowing the reader to see everything. There are some detail shots, and there are some instruments that have been photographed in their cases.

The collection is catalogued and organized by Albert R. Rice, who wrote the excellent introduction. I can't imagine any musician, any library, any school, any museum, or any collector who would not want to own this book!

You can visit the website here. There is a "look inside" feature, but the on-screen images are just shadows of the way they look on the page.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Ging heut Morgen übers Feld

I just returned from a most glorious morning spring rain walk. It seemed as if every single flower on every single tree was either in blossom, about to blossom, or was in the process of releasing its blossoms to the ground. Everything was quiet except for the sound of rain and the sound of birds.

The trees were simply drinking in the water, and I was protected by my umbrella and my rain boots. Every once in a while I would stop in front of a flowering tree and watch the movement happening in the tree. Though I didn't actually see it happen, I felt that the flowers were opening up before my eyes.

Early spring used to be a horrible time for me. I used to identify with the sentiments of the 24-year-old Gustav Mahler in his "Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen" when he asks,
Nun fängt auch mein Glück wohl an?
and answers
Nein, nein, das ich mein',
Mir nimmer blühen kann!

[When will my happiness start?
I believe it can never blossom]

Ging heut Morgen übers Feld

This morning my "Feld" was paved, and the things that were (and still are) blooming were planted by people who probably never imagined the amount of happiness their work could give to people who would probably never personally and directly thank them for making their corner of the world a beautiful and inspiring place. It doesn't matter if people thank you for your labors of love, and it is clearly not a thankless task to plant trees or flowers. It's also not a thankless task to write music. It's kind of the same thing for me.

Today I had vivid memories of the rain walks I took during my childhood. Could it have been the rubber boots on my feet (I haven't had rain boots since childhood)? I tried to figure out why this sudden embrace of spring joy has so strongly replaced my usual lousy "April is the cruelest month" feelings. Could it be the recovery from our overly-long winter? Could it be my mature (nearly 56-year-old) hormonal state?

For some reason the hormonal state thing seems to resonate. After I was no longer a child, and before I became a mother I used to have an annual February depression. I could count on it. But in 1987, when I gave birth to our daughter on January 28, my February was filled with joy and wonder. I was expecting some kind of postpartum depression, but there was none. The hormonal changes that happened during pregnancy seemed to change me permanently. All the Februarys since 1987 have been just fine, but my "funk" seemed to switch to the time of year when everything is blooming (and I am not).

So here I am, with my hormonal state almost transported to the way it was before I was a teenager, and I find myself singing. I am thrilled by the flowering trees. Instead of feeling "left out" I feel inspired to create.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Robert Freeman's The Crisis of Classical Music in America: a minority opinion

I'm surprised to find almost nothing but praise on the Internet for Robert Freeman's 2014 The Crisis of Classical Music in America

Robert Freeman was educated at the Milton Academy, Harvard, and Princeton, taught at Princeton and MIT, and served as an administrator at Princeton, Eastman, New England Conservatory, and the University of Texas. Part memoir and part handbook, the book has chapters aimed towards specific audiences: parents of young musicians, current college students, college faculty, deans, provosts and presidents, and foundation directors. There is some excellent advice about ways of making orchestral concerts more accessible to audiences, and some of Freeman's examples could serve as inspiration for organizations that are suffering economically; but he does not address what seems to be the largest crisis facing institutions of higher learning in America: the treatment of adjunct faculty.

Musicians have been working as academic adjuncts for a long time, but now that other fields of study rely on more and more adjunct faculty members to teach courses, the problem is no longer one that only concerns the state of music in colleges and universities. Freeman's paragraph about what he calls "junior faculty" makes his vantage point clear:
A special faculty problem, I think, is the difference between institutions like Harvard and Princeton, which most often choose senior faculty from the outside, as a means of ensuring quality, and institutions like Texas and Michigan, where the promotion rate for assistant professors approximates two thirds. In the latter universities, senior faculty treat junior faculty as a human resource to be developed and nurtured, in the former as a temporary resource to be exploited. It makes no sense to turn a promising young colleague into a personal friend if he is about to be exiled to what one thinks of too easily as the minor leagues.
To this I utter a resounding "Huh?" If Texas and Michigan are the "minor leagues," and the people teaching in those schools are in "exile," I hate to think about how he would regard the smaller state schools in America where the state of music really is in crisis.

I live in a college town where music majors are no longer required to take courses in musical analysis (such a course is no longer offered). Most of the members of the music faculty do not have tenure-track positions, and all the required music history courses for music majors are shouldered by a single underpaid instructor who is grateful to have the position. All of the music appreciation classes are taught by applied faculty, and the applied faculty members who teach those courses are more accomplished instrumentalists and better teachers, for the most part, than the people who had tenure-track jobs teaching their instruments a dozen years ago.

I share Freeman's belief that music students should study humanities, but I find his statement about hiring people to teach courses outside of music suspect:
The continuing national oversupply of very gifted PhDs in the humanities made it relatively easy to hire very good people in this area, one that I thought should be strong enough to persuade Eastman students that the abilities to read with nuance and to write and speak with power were important skills for a modern musician.
Does "relatively easy" mean inexpensive and without commitment?

Robert Freeman's father was a member of the Boston Symphony, and Robert enjoyed a childhood filled with music making at the highest level. I also grew up as a child of the Boston Symphony member (one generation later), and I attended an elite musical institution (Juilliard), but my adult view of the world of music is informed from what I see and hear around me in 21st-century America, where I live and work as a musician. Freeman's elevated vantage point makes me feel uneasy.

Perhaps Freeman is able to speak to some the problems facing some of the elite musical institutions in America, but I can't seem to find much in this book that resonates with my experience. Perhaps a truer title for the book would have been "The Problems Elite Musical Institutions Face in America," but then it probably wouldn't sell.

Friday, April 10, 2015

"Have something interesting to say . . ."

Kenneth Woods has something interesting to say about making mistakes and getting second chances:
Believe it or not, having an interesting musical point of view is, in my experience, the rarest quality in musicians, and also the most important. Anyone can be derivative, literal, formulaic or wayward. If your take on the Beethoven Violin Concerto sounds just like Mutter’s or Perlman’s but with more mistakes, then the mistakes really count. If you’re doing lots of attention-seeking “musical” stunts, any mistakes will also attract maximum attention. There’s no shortcut to an interesting, personal and engaging interpretation- you’ve got to ask a lot of questions, live with the music, study the score away from your instrument, put your repertoire in context, challenge your ideas (and especially your teacher’s ideas), feed off your colleagues and be in the moment. Once you develop a really interesting point of view, you have to find the technical means to put it across to the listener. If you can play the Bruch Violin Concerto or the Beethoven 4th Piano Concerto in a way that makes your colleagues and the audience listen with excitement and anticipation, you can probably be forgiven missing the odd run. Why only nine things on the list? Because this one counts double. Have something interesting to say about the music and you’ll always give yourself the best chance at a second chance when you need it. Cause let’s face it: we all need a second chance sooner or later.
You can read his whole post here.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Plop and Pop: Creating a Reliable Left Hand Position on the Violin and Viola

Much of what I know about violin and viola playing comes from practice, obsessive observation, and intuition. A lot of it comes from my experience as a wind player; particularly my experience with the recorder, and a lot of it comes from advice I learned from friends who happen to be great musicians. I have never been "trained" as a Suzuki teacher. If I were to identify with a "school," it would be the rather dowdy Samuel Applebaum "school" because that is the method I used to learn to play the violin when I was a child.

I have been teaching students my "Plop and Pop" method for about ten years, and I think it's high time I share it with other upper string players. There are people who might disagree with me totally, which is fine. All I know is that when an intelligent student applies the principles of "plop and pop," s/he makes an excellent sound, plays well in tune, and develops the confidence to express himself or herself musically.

Here are the basic components:

A beginner violinist does two basic things with his or her fingers: plopping and popping.

The Plop

When (in the first position) you play a D on the A string you plop down your first, second, and third fingers in the configuration necessary for the key (e.g. the second finger will be "kissing" the third finger in keys that have C sharp, and the second finger will be "kissing" the first finger in keys that have B natural and C natural).¹ You always plop from above, and you always plop decisively. You don't need to press when you plop, and you never need to squeeze or clamp the hand down on the fingerboard. Plopping is kind of like sitting down on a nice chair, or putting down a bag of groceries. You use the weight of your arm to make the plop. The plop works most effectively when the wrist is dropped and when the left thumb is relaxed and not bent. It also works best when the arm is under the violin. Form follows function.

The plop works in any position, and conscientious plopping is a great antidote for students to tend to pull their strings sideways. The beauty of the plop is that it is premeditated. You "see" the fingers that are out of "sight," and you feel the half steps and whole steps during the nanosecond before the plop. In the case of the three-finger plop, the fourth finger needs to remain above (or the plop can't really happen). Once students pay attention to the necessity of keeping the fourth finger with the rest of the hand, the fourth finger learns to behave. A four-finger plop is more difficult (due to more half-step possibilities); but it is the logical next step after mastering the three-finger plop.

It is not always possible to plop all the fingers down comfortably (i.e. when you have a low first finger and a high third finger or when you play the viola), so the mental accounting for where the "unseen" fingers would land (if they could) works almost as well as an actual full-hand plop.

¹The "kiss" is what happens between the fingers during half steps. When you have a lot of half steps you get "Romantic" music!

The Pop

The pop is not as simple as it sounds. In order to get from the above mentioned D to the C sharp a half step below it you obviously need to lift the third finger. With the three fingers of the D on the A string "in hand," the second finger is already on the C sharp. The difference between just lifting the finger and "popping" is that before you lift the third finger you shift the weight of the hand to the second finger, using it like a lever to "pop" the third finger. The difference between using the moment before the change of note to shift the weight to the second finger before popping the third finger to "reveal" the C sharp and not shifting the weight is both audible and palpable. It takes a great deal of concentration on the part of the student and the teacher to recognize the physical and aural sensations.

I like to give the idea of a teeter-totter to "enlarge" the image. I also tell students that their fingers are like levers. The hand and arms really work like a group of simple machines when it comes to playing the violin and the viola.

[Click for a larger image, or go to the link above.]

If you use an arm-powered vibrato (as I do), it is easier to vibrate from one note to the next when you follow the principles of "plop and pop." If you do old finger shifts (as I do: it's the best playing therapy I know for left hand tendonitis), a modified plop and pop comes into play. It sure makes practicing interesting, and it makes everything sound better.

For some reason cellists seem to do this kind of thing naturally. When our son started playing the cello, he did it immediately. If you watch Nathan Milstein's left hand, it is clear that his weight is always shifting before he "pops." My father does it too, but when I explained my "plop and pop" theory to him a few weeks ago, it was new to him. Maybe you do it naturally too. But teaching others to do it is a different matter.

I find that while students are playing I can remind them to plop here and pop there. I also incorporate other words that come immediately to mind: stop, roll, and drop, but those are really matters to elaborate on in another post. Here's a brief preview:

Stop: The bow can stop at any time. It can make very short stops between notes in a shift. It can stop during the nanosecond before the left hand weight shifts to the next finger in order to "pop."

Drop: Drop the wrist.

Roll: The bow rolls to the next string in the case of a string crossing.

Note to violists:

Since the half-steps on the viola are not as natural as they are on the violin (we always have to make adjustments), there is an added level of "pre-thought" that goes into using the "plop and pop" method. The price we pay to play our glorious instrument well is that additional moment of thinking. Now I really understand the motivation behind my father's dictum, "You have to think all of the time, not just some of the time."

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Tap the World with Ben Leddy!

Our son Ben wrote this fantastic patter song that will teach you the countries and territories of North and South America, Africa, Asia, and Europe in less than four minutes.

Friday, April 03, 2015

My Two Zuzims on Passover

This piece is part of a series of 12 preludes that correspond to the months of the Jewish year 5775. This one is my "two zuzims" on Passover, which falls during the month of Nisan.

You can listen to it here, and you can get the music here. I plan to put the whole set of preludes in the IMSLP when it is finished in August. I have limited myself to writing one per month.