Sunday, May 31, 2009

Should Classical Music Try to be Fashionable?

Posterity is ruthless in weeding out music that panders to fashion.
This article by Andrew Clark is well worth reading.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Remembering what "can't" feels like

I believe that I have crossed the threshold between "can't" and "can" on the violin. Seventeen or so years of diligent practice, and a few startling breakthroughs have taught me the "where" and "how" of addressing a lot of violin playing difficulties that I used to have. I realized today that I have forgotten what "can't" feels like on the violin, though "don't" and "won't" are still alive and festering.

But I feel what "can't" feels like on the piano. The connection between what my fingers touch and how they feel is not yet formed, but I understand the goal of "can" because I can recognize "can't." I imagine that at some point--perhaps in a few years, or maybe even in a few months--I might not remember what "can't" feels like on the piano. "Can't," unless it is related to concrete physical limitations, has more to do with not knowing how to do something than not being able to do it. Remembering the feeling of "can't" actually motivates and excites me, because it gives a kind of definition to the road that stretches ahead.

I remember when I couldn't touch type (I learned how at the age of 22 or 23, when I went to typing school), but I don't really remember what it physically feels like not to be able to touch type.

I remember when I couldn't swim, but I don't remember what it feels like not to know how to swim or ride a bicycle, or drive a stick shift.

Я определенно понимаю чего он значит не мочь прочитать русского, ή ελληνικά, 或者, but I don't remember what it feels like not to be able to read English.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Freudian Piano Envy

While I was spending some of this morning in session with Drs. Beckwith and Cramer, I came to some striking realizations.

My mother was an adorable child--bright, beautiful, talented, and she had (and still has) perfect pitch. Her mother was a piano teacher, who had every depression-era mother's dream of turning her talented daughter into someone like Shirley Temple. Taking dance lessons and playing the piano were part of the package, and the piano lessons didn't cost anything (in terms of money, that is). When my mother was eight she had a case of rheumatic fever, which left her with childhood rheumatoid arthritis, squelching my grandmother's original dreams. Because her arthritic hands could never be the hands of a pianist, my mother was given flute lessons, and she played the flute into her early 40s, until a hand operation made it impossible to continue. But she could still play the piano because of the lessons she had as a child.

My mother had good intentions. She didn't want to put me through the kind of childhood that she had, so I was not given piano lessons (and she, not wanting to replicate difficulties she had with her mother, certainly wouldn't teach me). My older brother went off to live with my grandmother for year or so, and he came home able to play the piano very well. My younger brother was given piano lessons all through elementary school and high school. But not me. I tried to teach myself, but was not equipped to do so. My father, being a musical genius, taught himself to play the piano. I guess that he didn't notice any kind of a problem with me teaching myself.

I went through a great deal of my life feeling a sense of inadequacy because I didn't learn to play the piano properly as a child. I have certainly forgiven my parents for whatever they didn't do; they were just doing the best that they could do at the time. But like all survivors of an imperfect childhood, I have had to do a lot of personal repair.

Today, as I was practicing my scales (even the ones with lots of sharps and flats), it occurred to me that there is much that we can do to make up for the things that we didn't get in childhood, especially if they are skills that are necessary for growth or development. I would like to feel confident playing the music that I write for the piano (at tempo). And as I become a better pianist, I hope to write better music for the instrument.

Believe me, the process of learning an instrument as an adult (and I have done it a few times already) is pretty much the same as learning an instrument as a child. It just takes more time and a lot of self discipline. When we have lessons as children, the discipline we require comes from the outside. When we learn as adults, our discipline has to come from the inside. Adults are more impatient than children, and we are more self-critical; but we actually progress at around the same pace. It just takes, like most things physical, a little bit longer. Those of us who have obligations to others (like having jobs and families) have to carve out time for ourselves. Responsible parents generally make time for their children to practice, and they often exert pressure on them, as well as reward them for their accomplishments. The only reward that adults get for practicing is the ability to play.

It has taken me a long time for me to realize that using the excuse of not having had lessons as a child for not learning to play an instrument, is kind of like not learning a language because you did not speak it as a child. Yes. It is more difficult to learn as an adult, but the process of learning simply for the sake of learning (and not with the depression-era mother's goal of stardom) is not only extremely satisfying, but therapeutic as well.

Dr. Freud would probably note that much of the music that I use is my brother's piano music. Oh where, I wonder, is that hard-bound urtext edition of both books of the Well-Tempered Clavier?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Symbols of Eternity and Wisdom

We have come a long way with making music available to people, but we have also lost a great deal in the process. I love the idea of having cover art for Mozart that shows symbols of wisdom and eternity. You can see more wonderful images here. This is image 428 of 678 musical treasures. This Steiner publication is on sale for a mere 1,800 bucks.

Piano Insight

I have been practicing scales on the piano for a week now, and it has made a world of difference in the way I think about playing the piano. After my scales, to which I have now added scales in thirds, I treat myself to a new look at Mozart and Haydn sonatas. I can't help but notice that they are filled with scales, and since I have been practicing my scales, I can play the scale passages. I actually look forward to playing the scale passages, and feel very proud that I can play them fluidly. It occurred to me this morning that perhaps Mozart wrote some of his piano sonatas to reward pianists who practiced their scales. It also occurred to me that the mid-18th-century piano sonata was not unlike an application or a game for a particular type of computer-based machine. Perhaps Haydn was kind of like a really clever software developer, thinking of ways to amuse and entertain his solitary users.

Monday, May 25, 2009


It is very revealing what the celebrity judges say after this basically unremarkable performance. The first performance a few weeks ago was remarkable (for various reasons--surprise, disconnect between image and voice, the "freshness" of it all), but now that she is a known quantity, listeners have expectations. The panel here has expectations too: they want to "make" a "star" so that they and the program they represent can take the credit.

Had this been her initial performance, the judges might have rolled their eyes at the first out-of-tune notes, but since they have something at stake, they used words in the comments like "you nailed it." Oy.

That's show biz, I guess.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Special Occasion Vegan Cake

It was indeed a special occasion, and this vegan cake was so incredibly easy to make that I thought I'd share it here. A few months ago I would never have thought of making a cake from a mix, but I recently learned that some of the Duncan Hines cake mixes are vegan. The cakes I make using these mixes are consistently better than the ones I have made from scratch.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease whatever kind of pan(s) you want to use.

Pour 1 cup of soy milk into a 2-cup measuring cup. Add a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar, and let it sit for a couple of minutes. Stir in a cup of unsweetened applesauce. Open the box of cake mix and pour the contents into a metal bowl. Add the soy-applesauce mixture, and mix for several minutes with an electric mixer.

Pour the batter in the pan(s), and cook according to the directions on the box. The above layer cake cooked for 35 minutes.

While the cake is cooking, mix a few tablespoons of softened margarine with a cup of tofutti "better than cream cheese," add a teaspoon of vanilla extract, and beat in (with a spoon) a few cups of confectioner's sugar, until the consistency is they way you like it. Put it in the refrigerator until your are ready to frost the cake.

It tastes great with fresh strawberries. It also tastes great with chocolate frosting.

Hearing Double

Until yesterday, when I had a violinistic epiphany, I always had difficulty playing double stops on the violin. I practiced them all the time, and I practiced them in every possible configuration, taking care to have the best of all possible left hand positions, yet somehow with intervals physically larger than a sixth (where the fingers on the left hand are very close to one another, making the lengths of the two strings nearly the same), I would often find my double stops unstable.

My epiphany came, I believe, as a result of playing scales in octaves on the piano. Both hands articulate with equal weight and at the same time when you play scales on the piano. I realized that although on the violin both hands to do need to carry equal weight, both strings in a double stop need to have equal attack. In other words, the bow has two points of contact with the two strings that are being played.

Obviously the bow needs to be perfectly straight, at least initially, in order for both points of contact to have equal ability to articulate, and obviously the left-hand fingers need to be strong and secure, but they do not need to bear a full 50% of the burden of producing the pitches. It is the division of weight between the two points of contact with the bow that happens at the beginning of a double stop that insures that the pitches will be true and in tune. The kind of bow stroke doesn't matter, the direction of the bow doesn't matter, and the place on the bow doesn't matter. All that matters is that each string gets its equal point of contact. The fingers on the right hand will adjust according to what you ask them to do, but you do have to ask. And then the left hand fingers, freed from their immense burden, can relax and adjust.

Perhaps this is "no-brainer" normal thinking for most string players, but for me, still being a wind player in much of my physical orientation to playing, it is a revelation. I used to think of double stops as having a dominant pitch, and I used to think of of dragging the bow along on the string that held the secondary pitch, but now I know better. And now I play better.

Update: I tried this with my students, and now they play better too. I now refer to the red spots on the above diagram as the "red zone." Thinking about the "red zone" works for single notes as well as for double stops.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

Now that we are finally seeing the sun here in the midwest, it is worth celebrating.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Serenade for Oboe and Strings

Imagine my surprise when I found this recording of a performance of my Serenade for Oboe and Strings that was played a couple of years ago at the University of Illinois on the U of I Media Center's website! The musicians are not listed on the website's program, so I'll list them here:

John Dee, oboe
Sherban Lupu, violin
Hyunjung Choi, violin
Rudolf Haken, viola
Amy Flores, cello
J. Alex McHattie, bass

You can also hear a performance of a great suite for oboe and string quartet written for John Dee by Seymour Barab on the same program.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Multum in Parvo

Sometimes before teaching, while I am waiting for a student to come, I play the piano. I do it because I really enjoy the music, and I do it to remind myself that I often ask my students to do things that are difficult for them to do. I never had piano lessons as a child, so playing the piano is difficult for me.

I remember at Juilliard we had to take class piano. I faked away horribly, relying on my ear and basic musicianship rather than on disciplined practice (not unlike many of my students), and the limited time I put into practicing scales only involved memorizing finger patterns--nobody took the time to explain the reason for the finger patterns, or maybe I was just not interested. I spent the rest of my playing-piano life having frustrated (and slow) fun at the piano, looking at my hands, most of the time.

Following the fingerings printed in piano music usually makes sense for me in musical context (though I usually just make up my own), but when I try to play scales in octaves, my fiddle player's brain takes over, and I confuse the numbers of my fingers. 3 on the fiddle is 4 on the piano. 1 on the fiddle is 2 on the piano. And I have to think three times when I see a 5.

Anyway, after playing through a movement or two of Mozart (slowly) while waiting for my 4:00 student to come, I got the sudden urge to try my hand (or hands) at some scales. I reached for my Cramer Pupil's Daily Exercises for Pianoforte and tried to play an F major scale in octaves. I kept getting myself twisted and flustered, assuming that I would be interrupted by the sound of not-so-little feet at the door. Frustrated, I opened to another page. A series of scales that began in C major and went through all the keys. The title of the two-page exercise was "Multum in Parvo" or "Much in Little." Two measures per scale seemed fine with me. Perhaps I could get through the whole thing before my next student came (it was clear to me that my 4:00 student was not coming).

I decided that I was simply not going to let myself get defeated by the fingerings, fingerings that six-year-old children can wrap their little fingers around without question. They are fingerings that make sense when you consider the way a pianist navigates around the keyboard. They have been used by countless generations of pianists. So I began. By the time I reached E major I started actually enjoying the physicality of playing scales on the piano. I started to relax my neck muscles, and listen to the sound. Two measures per scale is really much in little. Perhaps I'll do it again tomorrow, or maybe even tackle the minor scales this evening.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Regional Music

I used to work for the (no longer partially-classical) radio station that is attached to the TV station that broadcasts this program from a town a dozen or so miles down the road, and I teach the daughter of one of the people dancing. They say that you should bloom where you are planted, but somehow my roots didn't seem to take in this particular region. So I just carry on.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Big Day, Huge Feelings

Rachel graduates from college today, and Ben turns 20. It seems like it was only a short time ago she was starting kindergarten and he was just starting to walk and talk. I suppose that a lot of water has gone under the bridge, and now, suddenly, on this blustery and cold May day, Michael and I find ourselves the tear-smeary and proud parents of two adults with intact and active senses of humor (a linguist and a philosopher) who love the important things in life (including one another).

Memory Lane

Or should it be memor-Elaine?

I have always been told that there are various components involved in playing music from memory. There is a visual component, an aural component, a kinetic component, and an intellectual component. I seem to lack significant amounts of all four. Seriously. Trying to play from memory has been as frustrating for me as trying to develop perfect pitch (and I have tried and tried for years and years), drawing the face of a person I am not looking at, or reaching the top shelf in the kitchen without a step stool.

I have been trying my memory skills with the Bach E major Partita (there's a nasty page turn half way through the first movement that I would love not to have to worry about), but at assorted crucial moments I find myself in the wrong key, in the wrong place on either the bow or the fiddle, and unsure exactly where I'm going, or of how to get there. The idea of being "one" with the music flies out the window when I'm trying to play from memory, and the idea of anything spontaneous happening gets squashed by insecurity. The notes take over, and my constant worry about what is coming next makes the process of playing music an exercise in survival. Any physical connection I have with my instrument, which comes only as a result of a lot of rote repetition, is dubious. If bad habits get practiced in they do not seem to want to leave once they have taken root, especially during moments of panic.

Sure. I can play by ear, but when I improvise I have absolutely no memory of what I did, and usually have no idea what notes I am playing, or even, occasionally, what key I am in. The experience usually flies through my instrument, and out into the world--never to be retrieved again. It is a problem for me as a composer, because I always feel like my best ideas fly away before they can be captured. That's why I carry note cards with me.

I remember talking to my father once about feeling inferior because I didn't have perfect pitch (another kind of musical memory). He said (maybe it was just to help me feel better) something to the effect that in place of perfect pitch I had something else. Perhaps not having perfect pitch or a musical memory I can depend on makes room for other aspects of music making, like freedom of interpretation, the ability to take musical risks, and the ability to have easy communication with other musicians. Perhaps it helps me to be more sensitive listener, because my preconceptions recede into the background, and the performance at hand takes the largest part of my attention.

I guess it takes all kinds in the world of music.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Piano in the East Room of the White House

I couldn't help but notice this partially-FDR-designed and federally blinged-out Steinway in a couple of the photos from the recent White House poetry jam.

You can see the other White House pianos here. I like to imagine what Ives would sound like on this piano.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Between Engagements

The internet, being a brilliant personal public relations machine, gives the illusion that, in spite of the downturn in the ability for many musical institutions to sustain themselves financially, the world is abuzz with musical activity and full of people with inspired and active musical lives. It also gives the general impression (if you read people's web pages and profiles), that many musicians are actually able to make good livings as soloists, composers, and as members of chamber music ensembles.

I wish it were true, but I think that the reality of the matter is that a large number of performing musicians spend a lot of time "between engagements." I also imagine that most of the pieces that have been written by composers who are still living remain, for a multitude of reasons, unheard. I guess, with recorded music being the way so much music reaches people's ears, being "between engagements" is the way far too many performing musicians spend their time.

The collective array of professionally-made, high-quality websites for performing musicians and composers makes me feel intimidated much of the time. And when I'm not being intimidated, I feel a bit jealous. Why does everybody seem to be having more fun than I'm having?

Now that musical public relations can be controlled by individual musicians and groups who are not affiliated with a management organization (though there are impressive management websites "out there"), a good deal of a musician's "quality" is measured by how well s/he sells his or her "product." Sometimes this display really digs its way into my (already fragile) sense of self worth. I find that when I am "between engagements," I have to sit myself down and remind myself why I do what I do.

Here, for my personal affirmation (and for your information), is a short list of why I do what I do.

1. I love to play and practice the violin, the viola, and the viola d'amore.

2. I love to play chamber music, which also means I love to play with other people.

3. I love to play concerts and to share what I love about the music I'm playing with unsuspecting people, who are sometimes strangers.

4. I love to write music because of the expressive surprises it offers. I also love to make unique and beautiful things from scratch. The whole process of composition feels like magic to me. It allows me to use my intuition and to draw on a whole lot of unconscious experiences, both musical and otherwise.

5. I love the idea of sharing what I write with people who get enjoyment out of playing it, and I love the idea of people using what I write for particular situations and circumstances; like friends being able to play or sing together because they finally have a piece that matches their combination of instruments.

6. I love to learn new music (particularly old music that is new to me), and I love to have all my preconceptions challenged (and sometimes shattered) by hearing or playing a piece of music.

7. I love to teach because I love to share what I have learned. Nothing I have learned or figured out becomes real to me until I have passed it on to someone else.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Practicing with Audacity

Problems with intonation and clarity seem to find their way into everything I play. Using a tape recorder can help iron out some of the larger problems, but pinpointing the smaller ones can be difficult.

Enter Audacity, and its possibilities for slowing down recordings (you can see the playback slider above). By listening to a playback at half speed, it is easy for me to notice exactly which pitches are out of tune, which shifts are not accurate, and which string crossings are not clean. It is particularly useful in fast passages, but it works with slow ones as well. I can circle the culprit notes and intervals in my music, correct the problems by practicing carefully, and make a comparison recording of the result.

It works like a magnifying glass. Once those pesky little problems are magnified, they are much easier to see, hear, and solve. Focusing on the right stuff saves a great deal of time and energy, making practice time far more productive.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Live Long and Practice

I must confess. I loved the new Star Trek movie, just as I loved the original Star Trek series. While the iron is hot, I thought I'd share one sneaky way of getting young people (or beginning violinists of all ages) to remember how to play the whole step between C-natural and D-natural on the A string, the whole step between F-natural and G-natural on the D string, and the whole step between G natural and A natural on the E string in first position, while keeping the first finger down (a half-step below the second). Like making the hand symbol for "Live Long and Prosper," it is accomplished by a lot of practice.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Tenting on a New Camp Ground

Every semester for the past several years I have played my students a recording of Charles Ives' "They are There." Every year the ideas and ideals in this song seemed like could never be a reality. Kyle Gann's sentiments on a 2005 PostClassic post echo my usual feelings about the song, as well as its performance by the composer. This semester (the other day, in fact) listening to this song with my classes felt different from the way it felt in semesters past. It was as if many of the deep feelings of unrest and despair that have been rumbling around this country for most of my adult life are quietly making their way into the past. Perhaps we are tenting on a new camp ground.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Musical Hats

I live outside of the hustle and bustle (with an accent on hustle) of the musical world, and, though I sometimes complain, I have been pretty happy about it lately because I can live by making my own musical rules, and do not have to waste my creative energy on the extra-musical side of musical life. My life is regulated only by my own standards of quality, which are high enough to keep me very humble. I love having this little place in the blogosphere where I can share my thoughts with whoever happens to come by, or whoever might happen to share an interest, and I love having a place on line to make the music I write available to people who are interested in it.

When I venture out into the world I wear a number of different figurative musical hats. I actually own the one above, though mine is very well worn and in need of some repair. I suppose that this is the reviewing hat that I (figuratively) wear when I write for the American Record Guide. It is traditionally a man's hat, and in the magazine, which is populated by many more men than women, I am often regarded by readers as "Mr. Fine." (Not that I hear from many readers.)

I feel that my job is to give as much information as I can about a recording I get to review so that the person reading can decide whether s/he wants to hear it. I feel very proud of the small contribution to the general musical dialogue that I can make from my home outside of the mainstream. I can speak in condensed paragraphs, and I know that whatever I write will be read by the people responsible for making the recordings. I also know that positive reviews will help the people who make excellent recordings know that there are people who value the amount of work that goes into making them. I feel that my charge as a reviewer is to be honest, and I like to think that all the other hats I wear help to inform my honesty. As "Mr. Fine" (or as simply FINE) of the ARG, my impressions of recordings do have some serious weight in the musical world that floats outside of my own private world.

I suppose I also wear this hat when I write program notes and when I teach music appreciation classes. Perhaps that is why my bowler hat is so worn.

The cloche above is the figurative hat I wear when I am practicing, playing, or teaching the violin and the viola. It is the hat that I have always wanted to have, even though it doesn't always look as good on me as it does on other people (but it would look far worse on a man than it would look on me). It keeps the sun out of my eyes, and it protects me from the cold.

I wear this one when I play the viola d'amore and the recorder.

This is my flute hat, which I don't wear it very often.

These are some of my composing hats. One of the greatest pleasures I get from composing music is that it gives me a chance to "dress up" as instruments and voices that I can't (or don't) use in real life. A few of them are like my flute hat, but then again, I prefer to write for flute rather than to play the instrument. Other people look far better in these hats than I do.

. . . And this is my blogging hat.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Queen of the Baton?

I had a delightful time this morning playing through a violin sonata by René-Emmanuel Baton (1879-1940), who published under the name "Rhené-Baton" (which sounds like "Reine des bâtons" or "queen of the baton"--a fine name for a conductor), and incorporated a lot of folk material from the Breton region of France (known as Brittany) into his music.

I first heard of Rhené-Baton by way of a piano trio recording I was sent to review for the ARG. I am delighted to find that much of his music is now available in PDF form on line (and to download for free) from the International Music Score Library Project.

Here's a little audio/video sample of one of his flute pieces.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Tanglewood: August 9, 1975

During the summer of 1975 the important person in residence at Tanglewood was Mstislav Rostropovich, who came there with his wife Galena Vishnevskaya and their two daughters, Olga, who played the cello, and Elena, who played the piano. It was a very exciting summer, filled with master classes where Rostropovich would tell charming stories (I remember that his humor was rather unrestrained). Near the end of the summer Rostropovich was scheduled to perform Shostakovich's Second Cello Concerto. Many people knew the first concerto, but very few people knew the second, a piece that Shostakovich wrote for Rostropovich in 1966. Only nine years old, it was a piece of relatively new music. I am pretty sure that this performance was the first by the Boston Symphony, and it could have even been the first American performance of the piece. Anyway, it was a big deal.

The fact that Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony was on the second half of the program offset any chance of losing the audience to an unfamiliar work. Everyone loves Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony.

During the intermission there was a bit of a commotion on stage, and then Galena Vishnevskaya walked to the center of the stage and sang an unaccompanied lament. Everybody wondered what it was about. Eventually Bill Moyer, the Boston Symphony Orchestra's personnel manager, came on stage. He told the audience that Dmitri Shostakovich had just died.

Then Rostropovich conducted the performance of the Fifth Symphony. It was an awesome performance in every way. Many thousands of people were in a state of collective mourning. Wherever "there" is when a person dies, that's where we all were.

(I seem to remember that the program was an all-Shostakovich program, but a passage quoting Oliver Knussen's recollections of the day on page 188 of Peggy Daniel's Tanglewood: A Group Memoir suggests that there might have been some Tchaikovsky on the program.)

Monday, May 04, 2009

Musical Line

Some people call it phrasing. I also like to think of it as line, because lines show shape, and musical ideas are made of lines of different lengths and thickness that interact with one another.

As a flute player I always envied oboe players. Their supply of air could last for pretty much as long as they wanted it to, allowing phrases in Bach, for example, to reach their points of repose after following very long musical paths. Flutists, who have to waste half of their air supply making a sound, often have trouble developing the intellectual ability to think in long phrases because they lack the physical ability to execute them. There are exceptions, like Emmanuel Phaud, but they are exceptional. I always hoped that playing with real musical line and being able to allow music to develop in really long phrases would be something I would gain with age and maturity. For me it took more than age and maturity; it took learning to play instruments other than the flute, and to experience the mapping of phrase lengths in repertoire other than the flute repertoire. And even with age and maturity (now that I'm 50), the struggle to keep track of long phrases, and carry them, like tea trays, to their various destinations (which are sometimes difficult to determine) is constant.

The other day I watched a television broadcast of a concert I played last weekend. There was a very young pianist playing the Tchaikovsky Concerto who played with true musical line. I'm grateful for the broadcast because there was a great deal I wasn't able to hear because I was playing myself.

This pianist's sense of musical line--getting from one note to the next, or from one note to an important one that happened to come a measure or two later--was extraordinary. He must have been thinking about his phrasing all the time because there was nothing accidental or casual about the direction of any phrase. But, in spite of his tremendous control, every phrase was surprising and compelling. The one-note-to-the-next progress of the piece was as important as the one-phrase-to-the-next progress. And that was just the skeletal level of the piece. On top of the beautiful phrasing, everything was dressed in an array of brilliant musical colors. It was very inspiring, partially because his musical choices seemed so completely natural.

So, I have been working on trying to keep track of long musical lines, and paying a lot of attention to their sense of contour and consequence. The process of doing so, particularly when playing Bach, is kind of like following a complicated line of reasoning, while at the same time allowing yourself to be immersed in the emotional flow of everything that does not concern the intellect.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Alienating Musicians

Here are three examples of why so many people stop studying the violin (and other instruments) when confronted with this kind of a teacher. It's not so much what this teacher says that I find so very difficult to stomach, but how he communicates verbally and how he demonstrates his concepts musically. I imagine that there are other teachers like this loose in the musical world.

1. 2. 3.

(I know that #1 seems like a joke, but when you move on to #2 and #3, you will see that it is serious.)

When you have had enough, please go here for an example of how beautifully and effectively someone can use the internet to help people to learn about string playing and musicianship.


There is an elaborate discussion about these videos over at If you scroll down (or search for) "Nicholas Garibaldinos," you will come upon something far more disturbing than even the violinistic content of the video-violin-lessons: the "king" revealing himself in sentences that show he is either the product of a horribly deficient education, or that he feels that he is entitled to live far beyond the conventions of punctuation.

The discussion among the other literate violinists at the site is interesting reading, and Mr. Garibaldinos was kind to host a post by this "king".

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Edward White's Puffin Billie

For everyone with fond television memories of the Captain, here's the title music, and some more about the music for the show.

Cult of Personality: Other Thoughts

I'll never forget the day that Herbert von Karajan came to Juilliard. Around the time of an orchestra rehearsal, people were speaking in hushed tones about it. Perhaps he would come to hear our orchestra. And then he arrived. There was a familiar aura in the room: the specialized scent that musicians emit, perhaps, when someone they believe is truly great has entered a room. Now, I didn't care much about Karajan, but I did know his name. I barely saw him when he came in with his entourage (he was very short) and his scarf, but I could feel the importance of his presence.

I noticed the same sense of general awe at Tanglewood when I would see Leonard Bernstein go to a rehearsal, dressed in the most casual of clothes, smoking a cigarette, and surrounded by an entourage. Perhaps it is the entourage that presents that aura of "otherness."

My flute teacher would often have guests come in to Juilliard (and those guests needed guest passes just like everyone else), and they would present themselves as people who didn't have a practical care in the world. People who never had to pay a phone bill (or worry where the money would come from to do it), people who looked really successful, and presented themselves as successful people. Now, in retrospect, I have a feeling that it was, for almost everybody except James Galway, mostly an act.

Though my musical origins were impressive (growing up around the Boston Symphony), I tended to respond to musicians as regular people. Sure, my parents dressed up for concerts, but it was more like putting on a uniform. My father, being the kind of person he is, dressed for comfort. On stage he wore tails like all the other BSO men, and in normal life he wore normal clothes--nothing fancy, and nothing particularly noteworthy, and nothing particularly stylish. My teacher dressed the same way as my father (except for the running pants--my father would never be caught dead in anything as stylish as running pants).

I followed the examples of my teacher and my father, but perhaps I should have followed the examples of all those well-dressed guests. I imagine (thinking in retrospect) that those people who looked so "put together" had probably spent many hours and lots of money to look the way they did to present themselves as Juilliard. From those experiences (and other observations) I learned that flutists (both men and women) are more often judged by the way they look--the way they present themselves, the way they dress, and their overall attractiveness--than the way they play.

The dressing down of conductors (Bernstein and Ozawa) in the 1970s was always confusing to me. In a way I believe they would carefully dress down because they could. It magnified their sense of importance. They were so important that they could be the worst dressed people in a room, and still be the most attractive.

It still baffles me how much attractiveness factors into musical success. You would think that the situation would be different for musicians, who are supposed to be judged by the way they sound rather than the way they look. But it isn't. Composers too. Look at the success of Ned Rorem. Had he not been an extremely good-looking young man (and he is still an extremely attractive octogenarian), he might not have gotten the support of the people he needed to have any kind of a career. Charm and intelligence is one thing, and charm, intelligence, and good looks is another thing entirely.

Notice the way that my flute teacher, Julius Baker, playing with the far more attractive (far taller, and far more famous) Jean-Pierre Rampal (who toned down his body-English for this occasion), was ignored by Dick Cavett, who addressed all his banter to Rampal?

Friday, May 01, 2009

The Cult of Personality: Botstein on Schoenberg

Perhaps the greatest joy that I get from teaching music appreciation classes comes from the students who, without knowing anything about the ins and outs of the musical world, ask questions that really require a great deal of thought to answer. So I have been thinking.

Yesterday's class covered Schoenberg and Strauss (I always like to mention the Strauss statement about Schoenberg, "It would be better for him to shovel snow than to scrawl on music paper."), and once again the students were bewildered why Schoenberg could have so much influence on music of the twentieth century (and could take credit for alienating a good chunk of the audience for classical music), and that Strauss barely made it into our textbook (the opening minutes of Also Sprach Zarathustra finally made it into the introductory CD of the latest edition).

Now don't get me wrong. I do like Schoenberg. I find his music interesting to listen to and to study (but not particularly enjoyable to play). As a composer I find the 12-tone system useful, especially when I am having trouble coming up with ideas, but still feel like working. The problem that I find with 12-tone writing is that I can spend an enjoyable hour or two coming up with something that I think has some potential, and when I return to it after a day or so I have no idea what I was thinking about, or why I thought it worthwhile. The only success I have ever had in 12-tone writing has involved cheating; manipulating the row so that I can use the notes I want to use instead of the notes I have to use.

Growing up in a musical world that still embraced 12-tone music and the influence of Schoenberg, I didn't start writing music until I realized that it was "safe" to write music that I could really hear (I know that there are composers who have far better ears than I have) and would make musical sense to me day after day. It really has only been about 25 years since a composer of tonal or non-serial music could be taken seriously by his or her peers.

I came upon an article by Leon Botstein that outlines the problem, and compares the cult of personality that made Schoenberg who he was with the cult of personality that made Wagner who he was.
. . . . But the most apt comparison is with Richard Wagner. Not only did they both have disciples and demand uncommon degrees of loyalty from their followers, but Wagner and Schoenberg invented and institutionalized a rhetoric of self-defense and description. They both brilliantly placed themselves within music history and connected their work to past and future. Institutions designed to preserve and defend the Schoenberg legacy were created, first in Los Angeles, then in Vienna. Schools of composition and criticism that developed after 1945 relied heavily on Schoenberg’s analysis of compositional methods, his views on form and structure, and his readings of Mozart and Brahms. To generations of Schoenberg admirers, followers and scholars, any departure from this self-constituted (or auto-poetic) code of discourse of defense and description was tantamount to ignorance or betrayal.
You can read the whole article here.