Friday, September 26, 2008

More Shoulder Rest Thoughts

I never play with a shoulder rest. I never have. It is simply the way I taught myself to play, and I find that it has many tonal advantages because of the freedom of movement that it affords.

It dawned on me, however, in a sectional rehearsal the other night with a bunch of viola-playing kids who use shoulder rests, that it is certainly possible to lift the instrument to meet the bow while "wearing" a shoulder rest. The problem that I find is that a lot of younger players who use shoulder rests simply don't do it. They rely on the shoulder rest to hold the instrument up, and they make their sounds by applying their fingers and bows to objects that are almost stationary. This allows for a certain amount of control, I suppose, and it also allows, so I've been told, for a certain amount of physical relaxation, but for my musical purposes there is an awful lot more that I want to do when I play than relax and be in control (though being comfortable and having a reliable technique are both essential).

I find the process of making sound by applying the bow to an unmoving instrument is kind of like having one hand clap while the other one stays still (try it, and see how expressively you can clap). I find that using the energy of both arms (and hands) to allow sound to come out of the violin or the viola opens up a lot of expressive possibilities. It increases the size and depth of the sound, makes playing a lot easier, and can even be done with a shoulder rest attached to the instrument.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Da-da-da Dup Dum ba ba bum PAH

When I was a child I remember asking my mother why she always sang music with words like the ones that are in the title of this post. She responded by saying that it was the way that music sounded.

This always bothered me. There were subtle differences between the way a phrase could sound with one combination of vowels and consonants and they way it would sound with another. The end of a note with an "uh" vowel-type sound, for example, could terminate kind of convincingly with an "m," a "p," a "t," a "b," and not convincingly with an "s" (that hiss would add a bit of percussion to the end of the note), a "k" (because there would be an extra vowel sound after the consonant). We also have a wide variety of end vowel sounds (ah, ee, oo, uh, eh, and o in all their various positions of openness and closed-ness).

Then there are the opening consonants that wind players rely on for actual tonguing technique like "d," "t," "g," "r," and "k," and a whole range of "b," and "p," sounds that suggest percussion. The all-purpose "la la la" is sometimes used exclusively by people who are not deeply connected with the music they are singing. It can also be used as a syllable to suggest a very legato articulation in a soft, sustained lyrical passage. The exclusive choice of "duh duh duh" can suggest the lack of connection to a musical phrase, but sometimes it is the only syllable that will do when trying to imitate the sound of a brass section playing something martial.

Since all notes in a musical phrase are connected to those that come before them and come after them, the regular rules of spoken diction don't apply when singing music with nonsense syllables. The choices we make have everything to do with interpretation. I could sing a phrase with many different combinations of syllables, but ultimately, for each syllabic utterance of an untexted phrase, I must choose only one set of syllables, which I end up doing spontaneously and unselfconsciously. I know that the next time I sing the same phrase it may or may not have the same set of syllables, but I also know that nobody's keeping track.

I wonder if anyone reading this would have the same aural picture of the phrase in the title of the post that I have. I wonder if those syllables will mean the same thing to me tomorrow, or even in an hour.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Michelle's New Haircut

Update: A big welcome to everyone looking for a shot of Michelle Obama's real new hairstyle for February 2009, here's a lovely photo (I cropped Arnold out of the picture). If you are a person interested in classical music, have a look around!

Here's the content of the original post:

I'll take a moment away from musical discourse to voice my admiration for Michelle Obama's new haircut, and share it and her message with you.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The American Music League

In 1936 the American Music League (formerly called the Workers Music League) issued a call to "musicians and music lovers everywhere for the development of music as a people's art in America." Here is its mission statement (which I found in Music for the Common Man: Aaron Copland during the Depression and War by Elizabeth B. Crist)
1. to encourage the development of the highest type of amateur musical activities among wide numbers of people; and to draw into active participation in these activities those who have been denied the benefits of musical education and culture.

2. to encourage the presentation of, and to create organized audiences for, concerts presenting the best music of the past and present at prices within reach of everyone.

3. to bring composers and other professional musicians into closer contact with amateur musicians and with working people who form the bulk of the potential American music audience.

4. to guide and further the development of an American music addressed to the people, reflecting their lives, interests, and problems.

5. to collect, study and popularize American folk music and its traditions.

6. to defend musical culture against fascism, censorship and war.
The people who created this mission statement were strongly against the idea of "big financial institutions and banking interests" (they wouldn't have been able to imagine a corporation like Disney) being in control of musical institutions. They couldn't have imagined the mess that copyright and "ownership" of musical material has become. They couldn't have imagined the pop music culture that we have today where music is equal to fashion and people respond to "artists" because of they way they look or what they wear, or the struggles that they represent in their crafted public personae.

The motives of the AML's founding fathers and mothers were quite pure. They wanted to hear America singing, and they devoted their lives to trying to make it happen by collecting, setting, anthologizing, and recording folk songs and getting them added to public school music programs. School systems that are lucky enough to have strong music programs have benefited a great deal from the work that the people of the AML did, but there are too many communities that do not have strong music programs in their schools. There are too many music programs that simply pander to commercial musical tastes that are "marketed" to children and teenagers.

It is tragic for me to think that people's "lives, interests, and problems" are best demonstrated by the commercialism of music, but I fear that this is where American music is headed. American Idol.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Musing on music for the times

I have been listening to a lot of Beethoven lately. When I need reassurance about the state of the country or the world, the string quartets give me the balance I need. His deep sense of tension and release from tension and his grasp on the musical truth (which is, of course, THE truth as far as I'm concerned) provide the energy I need to go on with my day, and embrace at least a part of humanity while I am listening.

Why is it that I never grow tired of Beethoven?

Think of the times he lived in. Some of the things that he was fighting for (and against) in his lifetime were, in a way, the same kinds of things that we are fighting for (and against) in our lifetime. They just have different names and faces. People wore different clothes, didn't bathe as often, didn't use indoor plumbing or electricity, and they made their way around Europe by horseback or by carriage instead of making their way around the world by way of a computer terminal. Of course women didn't have a chance to be in positions of any kind of authority (or have a voice in any kind of political process), unless they were very rich, titled, or both. Money talked in Beethoven's day, and it certainly talks today. Greed, deceit, lust for power, and the abuse of that power are still every society's greatest embarrassments.

Word got around slowly during Beethoven's lifetime, and likenesses needed to be drawn or painted. Because of this, people who wanted to capture a visual image learned how to draw, which took time and patience. Music needed to be played by people who were actually in the room, and there was always a need for new music, especially if it was good music, and there was always a need for musicians. There were, of course, people (like Napoleon) who were unable to tell good music from not-so-good music, but he was balanced out by people who knew exactly how lucky they were to have known Beethoven, and it is thanks to those people that we can still have Beethoven in our lives.

There will never be another Beethoven because there doesn't need to be one. I believe that we would have a better world if more people would take the time to listen to (and play, of course, if they can) the music that he wrote. It is medicine.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Searching for Sanity on YouTube

Here's a video that has some refreshing news from fed up Alaskans. And here's another, and another, and another.

Here is a news item to give a bit of background about the rally, a post that has more about the rally, and some more pictures.

And she has become the stuff of song and story, which is where I hope she stays, gets old, and is ultimately forgotten. If you are still on the fence concerning what is true and what is not, please look at this common sense report.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

A bit of insight on current events from the Montpellier Codex

Here's a bit of 13th-century wisdom, brought to virtual life by Anonymous 4:

Ne sai, que je die,
tant voi vilanie
et orgueil et felonie
monter en haut pris.
Toute cortoisie
s'en est si fouie
qu'en tout ce siecle n'a mie
de bons dis;
quar ypocrisie
et avarice, s'amie,
les ont si seurpris,
ceus qui plus ont pris.
Joie et compaignie
tienent a folie,
mes en derriere font pis!

I do not know what to say
I see so much villainy
and pride and evil
gaining high esteem.
Courtesy has utterly fled
before them so that in
the whole world there is
no more noble speech;
for Hypocrisy
and her friend Avarice
have captured those who are most prized.
They consider joy and fellowship
to be foolishness,
and behind one's back they do even worse!

From this recording of music from the Montpellier Codex

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Four things I learned this summer

1. Most people know what a 16-year-old gymnast looks like.

2. Most people who have been pregnant or have ever known anyone who was pregnant know what a pregnant woman looks like at 7 months, regardless of the strength of her abdominal muscles.

3. Before a musician understands what it feels like to play in tune, the concept of playing in tune remains simply an abstraction. Once a musician understands what it physically feels like, playing in tune becomes a life-long obsession.

4. Items 1 and 2 don't have anything to do with my life.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

If you happen to be in the neighborhood . . .

Cellist Erica Lessie will be performing my Sephardic Suite on a faculty concert at the Sherwood Conservatory, 1312 South Michigan Avenue, in Chicago, Illinois this coming Sunday, September 14, 2008 at 3:00 p.m. This is the first concert of a new group called Cherchez La Femme, and admission to the concert is free.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Seeing Red

While going through the YouTube links for medieval music that I use for teaching, I noticed that two performances from the Carmina Burana had been removed by Schott due to copyright violation. Is it possible that the long arm of musical copyright law has extended back into the days before the use of the musical staff? This is something I just don't understand. Karl Orff only translated and used a small amount of the famous (and important) "Red Book" in his popular work, which, thanks to beer ads and the like, has made Schott a lot of money. But how is it possible, by extension, for Schott to own performing rights for the whole book--even the stuff that Orff didn't use?

The Carmina Burana, as I understand it, served as a kind of musical "Rosetta Stone." Because its songs had catchy tunes and had spicy subject matter (sex and drinking among them), the songs in the book remained a part of popular culture for centuries. The melodies in the Red Book (not to be confused with the Libre Vermell, another red book filled with great music) were indicated in neumes--little squiggles used in sacred music that only those in the know could read, and by the time staff notation evolved, most of those in the know were long dead.

There were people who knew the tunes in the Carmina Burana, though, so it became possible to decode some mystery melodies of sacred music through the use of neumes in the Carmina Burana. I love the idea that access to "sacred" music (the quotes are there because I believe there is a lot of music that is not religious that is sacred) can come by way of knowledge gained from "profane" music.

It doesn't make sense for Schott to remove some of the wonderful performances of songs from the non-Orff Carmina Burana from YouTube. The people posting those performances only did so in order to share something exciting, and to give people a lively look and listen to the great and enduring melodies that were preserved and passed through the ages. The were given to us in a book that was in the public domain a very long time before the public domain was even invented.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Nora Ephron on Reading

"Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel I've accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading makes me smarter. Reading gives me something to talk about later on. Reading is the unbelievably healthy way my attention deficit disorder medicates itself. Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it's a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it's a way of making contact with someone else's imagination after a day that's all too real. Reading is grist. Reading is bliss."
From I Feel Bad About My Neck and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman

You can run, but you can't hide!

The longer version of this disturbing video has been taken down, but this video puts the problem of hunting wolves and bears from airplanes into its proper context. Why would somebody want to shoot wolves (or bears) from airplanes? Why would somebody offer a bounty for the left leg of a dead wolf? This is turning into something far uglier and far more disturbing than anything I have ever witnessed in politics.

Keeping the glass at least half full

I must have a great deal of resilience. It might be something in my nature (it certainly isn't a product of nurture). I always try to arrive a few minutes early, be prepared, and I like to keep my glass at least half full most of the time. Most of the people that I come into contact with are of this mindset when it comes to music, and many of the people who live in my area of the midwest share a kind of political mindset that I prefer not to link to at the moment because it looms too large on my television, in my local newspaper, and, frankly, in my face.

Yes, I'm still "fired up" and "ready to go," but sometimes it is difficult. I simply have to believe that my fellow countrypeople are intelligent and reasonable people who seek political leaders that are true public servants. I have to believe that the majority of people in this country appreciate people who do what they do because they want to make life better for people and uphold people's constitutional rights. What I see around me tells me otherwise. It tells me that equal rights and choice for women are things that too many people (both men and women) don't want to sign into law and protect. It tells me that religion in its most extreme form has some kind of place in American government (witness the Saddleback forum). I always thought that America had a system of government based on the idea of freedom of religion. That should also allow freedom from religion.

This past week has been like a circus, complete with distorting mirrors, charlatans, snake charmers, trained animals, creepy clowns (some wearing expensive dresses), and a bespectacled moose hunter in the spotlight on the high wire (she may or may not have a safety net, and lacks the experience to make it to the end). When the circus party in question packs up its tent and fades into the background of life instead of parading in the constant foreground, maybe I can start filling my figurative glass with something other than hard liquor.