Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Please Give to the Red Cross

If everyone helps, even just a little bit, putting the east coast back together will be a little less difficult. Just click the image below, and it will take you to the "donate" page for the Red Cross.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Voice Talk and Ear Talk

I just came across Daniel James Shigo's fascinating blog about singing. A post from yesterday describes ear dominance, and uses the two presidential candidates as examples to study.

I have always felt a great imbalance between the two hemispheres of my body, which is why I think I only feel truly whole as a string player. The two hands doing the same exact kind of thing, with only the central air mechanism being expressive and active often makes me feel like I am in an expressive box. My hands have different strengths, sizes, weights, and temperatures, and until I became a string player I never even noticed. I am right handed and, according to all accounts, left brain dominant. I should "lead" with the right, but I always "lead" with the left. I always look left first when crossing the street and when turning around. I always have to be on the right side when Michael and I walk together, so that he is on my left. I far prefer being on the right side of a music stand so that I can look to the left to read the music. The "right" is an area of mystery, and sometimes even discomfort.

I have read studies about eye dominance (I'm highly left eye dominant), and I have always been aware that my two ears hear differently from one another, but this is the first time I have seen an actual study about it. I know that my left ear is dominant, so I have to remember to listen with both ears, which sometimes requires a small amount of effort. When I do, the world brightens up. I hear more.

I guess I must be mixed dominant.

When I walk down the street listening to music or even listening to the sounds around me, people always smile at me. I never really understood why until now: I must look happy when I am listening with both ears. I like what Shigo says about students trying to appear happy in order to sing better.
Of course, the student can't fake happiness. But they can pretend. And this can go a long way. The brain will accept an image more than a fact. Did I mention that my student had a breakthrough, singing up the scale into her head voice with great beauty? To emphasize my point: she 'got' what it looked and sounded like when she wasn't tense around the eyes. Now. Will she be able to keep it? That's another matter. Changes in audio-vocal control have to carefully nurtured until they become integrated.
Shigo sings beautifully, by the way. Listen to him singing Joseph Turrin's setting of "She Walks in Beauty."

Saturday, October 27, 2012


Yesterday I finished writing a set of Divisions on a Ground for alto recorder that will be part of a collection curated by Daniel Wolf that he is calling "The New Division." I am one of 24 composers who are each taking a different ground from John Walsh's The Division Flute and writing new Divisions (you could also call them variations) on the grounds that Walsh collected in 1706.

I had so much fun writing my "New Divisions on an Old Italian Ground" that I want, like a cell, to keep dividing. I'm currently working on a piece for violin, viola, and piano that could easily benefit from this kind of thing (a ground round, perhaps?), so I decided to check out Christopher Simpson's The Division Viol, which is an actual method book for writing divisions from 1655. (Perhaps it might have, in retrospect, been a good idea to read this before writing my set of recorder divisions, huh?)

The text and illustrations are as interesting as the Divisions themselves. This lovely orb, for example, shows the relationship of music to the zodiac "The outmoft Circle reprefents the Zodiack, and the Aspects of the Planets, to which you fee the Diapason with its Interfections exactly agreeing . . ." The bottom drawing shows that "all the Sounds that can poffibly be joyned together in Mufical Concordance, are ftill but the reiterated Harmony of Three."

Here's taste of Simposon's prose: a passage that explains his concept of music in relation to the zodiac. This is the 13th section of the second part of this book, his "Reflections upon the Concords of Music" (I have modernized the spellings, but have retained the capitalization):
And here I cannot but wonder, even to amazement, that from no more than Three Concords, (with some intervening Discords) there should arise such an infinite variety, as all the Music that ever has been or ever shall be composed. And my wonder is increased by a consideration of the Seven Gradual Sounds or Tones, from whose various positions and Intermixtures those Concords and Discords do arise. These Gradual Sounds are distinguished in the Scale of Music by the same seven Letters which in the Calendar distinguish the seven days of the Week; to either of which, the adding of more is but a repetition of the former over again.

This Mysterious number of seven, leads me into a contemplation of the Universe, whose Creation is delivered unto our Capacity (not without some mystery) as begun and finished in seven days, which is thought to be figured long since by Orpheus his seven stringed Lyre. Within the Circumference of this great Universe, be seven Globes or Spherical Bodies in continual Motion, producing still new and various figures, according to their diverse positions one to another. When with these I compare my seven Gradual Sounds, I cannot but admire the Resemblance of their Harmonies, the Concords of the one so exactly answering to the Aspects of the other; as a Unison to a Conjunction, an Octave to an Opposition; the middle Consonants in a Diapason, to the middle Aspects in an Orb; as a Third, Fifth, Sixth, in Music, to a Trine, Quartile, Sextile in the Zodiac. And as these by moving into such and such Aspects transmit their Influences into Elementary Bodies; So those, by passing into such and such Concords, transmit into the Ear an Influence of Sound, which doth not only strike the sense, but even affect the very soul, stirring it up to a devout Contemplation of that Division PRINCIPLE from whence all Harmony proceeds; and therefore very fitly applying to sing and sound forth his Glory and Praise.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Stories about Music by Arnold Steinhardt

The violinist Arnold Steinhardt (of Guarneri Quartet fame) has started a short story website about his musical adventures called "In the Key of Strawberry."

Here's the first story.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Driverless Cars Following the Path of Automated Music?

I just came across this article in The Economist about the ways fully-automated cars, which are, at this point, significantly more than a pipe dream, will change life as we know it. It is kind of like the way digitally-recorded and delivered music has already changed musical life as we know it.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Times are Tough, But Music is Tougher

Be grateful that I spared you the spoils of the "spell" I have been in over the past couple of days. Now that I have come to the other side, I have come to accept that, professionally speaking, things are not going to get better for me where I live. I can't imagine any act of fate that would suddenly compel enough community college students to sign up for music appreciation classes in sufficient numbers to make it necessary to add another class (or two) for me to teach, so I have decided not to let it bother all that much. Perhaps other professional opportunities in the world of music (but outside my geographical area) will come my way.

I think about the really tough times in history that the composers I admire lived through. I think about the oppression, the bigotry, the unfairness, the poverty, the wars, the famine, and the sexism that would have made it difficult for me to live and work during any time before the second half of the 20th century. Anyway, the reward for a composer is in the work itself: doing it, which brings daily pleasure (and challenge) and then hearing it played (which brings a different kind of collaborative pleasure), and not in recognition, which is illusive anyway.

It is clearly a lousy time to be a wedding musician, and a lean time to be an orchestral musician, but that's the way it is now, and there's nothing that anyone can do about it. Playing better (the only thing we really can control is the quality of our playing) does not mean that there will be more work, or that we will be fairly compensated for our time. And there is no such thing as going back. It just doesn't work, because time moves forward. Sometimes I think about what it might be like return to the time when the musical establishment frowned upon women participating in musical life in any way aside from singing, the occasional functional keyboard playing, as patronnesses of the arts, and as muses. When I do this, I get extremely uncomfortable.

When times get tough, I think of Beethoven working on his "Harp" Quartet (Opus 74) while Napoleon was bombing Vienna. Napoleon kicked the Archduke Rudolph, Beethoven's friend and student, out of his palace, and was living there. Napoleon had lousy musical taste too. He didn't think much of Beethoven's music. What do we musicians and music lovers have from this time of difficulty? A lot of great music that people wrote to brighten up a dismal, unstable, and often dangerous world.

Perhaps that is what we need to keep reminding ourselves. Music is something that brightens the world, or at least it brightens the lives of people who care about it. It always has, and I just have to keep remembering that it always will.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Welsh Singing

". . . for singing is in my people as sight is in the eye"
Michael and I watched How Green was My Valley last night.

You can watch the whole movie on YouTube here.

Friday, October 19, 2012


Bravo Barack!
"We have got to name this condition he is going through. I think it is called Romnesia. I think that's what it is called. Now I'm not a medical doctor. But I do want to go over some of the symptoms with you because I want to make sure nobody else catches it.

If you say you're for equal pay for equal work but you keep refusing to say whether or not you will sign a bill that protects equal pay for equal work, you might have Romnesia.

If you say women should have access to contraceptive care, but you support legislation that would let employers deny contraceptive care, you might have a case of Romnesia.

If you say you will protect a women's right to choose but you stand up in a primary debate and say you'd be delighted to sign a law outlawing that right to choose in all cases, then you have definitely got Romnesia. . .

. . . If you come down with a case of Romnesia and you can't seem to remember the policies that are still on your website, or the promises you have made over the six years you've been running for president, here is the good news: Obamacare covers pre-existing conditions. . . We can fix you up. We've got a cure. We can make you well."

Musings About The Yard

The only thing about this post that has anything to do with music is the fact that while I am out in the yard pulling up vines, the last movement of Brahms Third Symphony seems constantly to be weaving its way through my brain.

We are having a strange year out in Illinois. Normally I don't spend time looking at the ground (I'm usually looking up), but this year I noticed that our back yard is a jungle of all kinds of vines. It didn't rain this summer, so we didn't mow (and therefore didn't know what was happening out there). It has been rather wet for the past month, and all the plants seem to be making up for the time that they lost during the summer. The vines in the yard seem to have the sole purpose climbing to the top of the hill, and I have taken a sacred oath to make sure that they never get there.

It's rough going, but I have been dedicated. It's raining now, which is the only reason I'm not pulling up vines, so I'm entertaining you by writing about the experience.

I'm rather new to thinking horticulturally. The culture part I get, but the "horti" part is another matter. I would love to know more of exactly what is in my basket.

I know this is a wild strawberry. I kind of like having wild strawberries growing in the yard because the birds and squirrels eat them.

and this is the wild strawberry flower. Yes. We have flowers and fruit both present (and thriving) during this odd Fall in Illinois.

This pine-like plant pops up everywhere. Here it is in its young form (in the ground), and then in its mature form (out of the ground). I would love to know what this one is. It smells like an evergreen, and it looks like a bonsai.

Then there's Vinca, my foe. Vinca looks really beautiful when it is contained, but it squeezes the life out of anything grasslike in its path when it is allowed to roam, undetected, like a snake in the grass. It is, however, rather rewarding to pull. It comes up in long ropes, and its young roots separate from the ground with just the slightest tug. Pulling it up does give a kind of "ping" of satisfaction, and with satisfaction being relatively rare in life outside of the back yard, I confess that I sort of enjoy the fact that it's there for me to pull, though I also want to win the battle for the hill. The pine vine likes to keep company with the Vinca. Here they are together.

and here's the battlefield:

Thursday, October 18, 2012

New Music Quartet Plays Beethoven Opus 59, No. 3

Broadus Erle and Matthew Raimondi, violins; Walter Trampler, viola; Claus Adam, cello

[Thanks David!]

Monday, October 15, 2012

Review: A Late Quartet

I had the great fortune to watch a preview of Yaron Zilberman's A Late Quartet, a film that will be released in theaters in New York and in Los Angeles on November 2nd. If you like string quartets (the music and those who play it), I imagine you will find watching this film as enjoyable and worthwhile as I did.

The movie is about (I'm not giving any plot spoilers here) The Fugue, a highly-successful New York-based string quartet that has played together for 25 years. Their oldest member, a cellist named Peter Mitchell (played by Christopher Walken), is diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease, and has made the decision to retire from the quartet. This change, along with influences from people outside of the quartet, begins to erode the delicate balances (musical and familial) that allowed the quartet to function as a successful musical organization.

Walkin plays the elder-statesman-musician very well. Peter Mitchell does not seem to be modeled on a particular cellist or, for that matter, on any musician in particular, but he has qualities of humanity, humility, wisdom, generosity, and morality that many of us like to expect from our chamber music mentors (some have actually lived up to our expectations). Daniel Lerner, the quartet's first violinist, is played by Mark Ivanir. Lerner came to Juilliard as a foreign student, and formed the quartet with Mitchell and two of his equally-young colleagues. He is a self-absorbed perfectionist who makes bows as a hobby. Robert Gelbart, the second violinist in the quartet (who takes risks in his private life and wants to take risks in his musical life as well) is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. He is married to Juliette Gelbart, the quartet's violist, who is played by Catherine Keener. They have a 24-year-old daughter named Alexandra, played by Imogen Poots, who takes lessons from Daniel Lerner and plays in a quartet that is coached by Peter Mitchell.

Much is made of the unorthodox seven-movement structure of Beethoven's 13th Quartet, his Opus 131. It frames the film, beginning with the opening fugue subject from the first movement, and ending with the final Allegro. Opus 131 accompanies and punctuates much of the action (there is also some non-Beethoven music) and becomes almost like a character. Motives from the first four movements serve as leitmotives for the various relationships between pairs of characters during the exposition. The relationships reveal themselves gradually, and though they end up being quite complicated, they are never implausible.

These quartet musicians are human, and some of them make very human (and often risky) mistakes. I believe that this film does a lot to show people who are not musicians how delicate the personal balances can be in a chamber music ensemble. They are as delicate and as fragile as the complications and balances in the music itself.

The superb actors have clearly spent time becoming familiar with their instruments. Their left hand positions, and the way the vibrato looks compared to what it sounds like might bother some string players a bit, but it is not enough to interfere with my enjoyment of the movie. After all, this is a movie about who we (string players) are and what we do, and these excellent actors are taking certain risks by entering our world and exploring the music that we love and the kinds of relationships that we have. I am particularly grateful for the care that the actors, their coaches, and the camera people put into focusing on the beauty of a straight bow stroke, whether the strokes are made by the actors or "bow arm doubles." Some of the off-the-string strokes show a valiant effort (it takes a good 20 years to develop a fully-functional bow arm). The synchronization between the actors' fingers and the actual sounds, made by the very fine Brentano String Quartet (celebrating their 20th year together), is very good, and the instruments (supplied by Rare Violins of New York) are simply beautiful.

After watching the film I opened my score to Opus 131, and I have to say that the film helped me to "see" it in a new way. Although Opus 131 is not the ideal starting place for people new to Beethoven quartets, the film serves as a perfectly good gateway to the kind of lifetime obsession that many musicians and music lovers through many generations have had with these 16 enduring and constantly-relevant masterpieces.

What better "lay" spokespeople for Beethoven and for string quartets could we ask for than this particular group of actors and actresses and this director?

Watch the Trailer.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Thought for the Day

I was thinking, "Wouldn't it be great if I could have an advocate like Joe Biden to speak up for me when I need it?" Then I realized that is just what he is doing.

Thank you Joe Biden for saying exactly what you mean.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

If Only Central Illinois Were More Like Amsterdam!

The Real Toscanini: Musicians Reveal the Maestro

Cesare Civetta is a conductor by profession and not a writer, so the biographical parts of this book are (thankfully) not overly "writerly." Civetta became interested in learning about Toscanini when his high school band director, who had played trumpet in Toscanini's orchestra, introduced him to Toscanini's Beethoven recordings. He supplemented his reading and listening by interviewing people who knew Toscanini and worked with him. During the 1970s Civetta produced a 35-part interview series on WFUV (Fordham University's radio station), and his guests included members of the NBC Symphony, singers who performed with Toscanini at La Scala as well as at the Metropolitan Opera, and other conductors. He also gathered information privately from people who knew Toscanini and worked with him in various capacities.

This extremely useful book is a thematically organized collection of quotations from 40-50 people (including many people I knew from my days in New York in the late 1970s, so I enjoy "hearing" their voices). Each chapter is divided into subheadings that offer commentary on a given subject from several musicians. The chapter on tempo, for example, includes subheadings that discuss rubato, Toscanini's sense of timing, his clarity of beat, his rhythmic accuracy, tempo in relation to acoustics, and working with soloists. There's a chapter on opera, one on musical architecture, and chapters on balance, baton technique, philosophy, rehearsal style, and recording.

The book is rich with quotations from Alan Shulman, A cellist in the NBC Symphony, who was also an excellent composer, the oboist Robert Bloom, the violist Emanuel Vardi, the violinist, Misha Mischakoff (by way of his daughter's book), bassist David Walter, the choral conductor Robert Shaw, and many other musicians. Together they not only describe Toscanini as a conductor and as a human being, but they demonstrate a kind of like-mindedness that permeated Toscanini's musical New York, and informed its first true golden age of music.

I'll give you just one quote from Josef Gingold, and then you'll need to get a copy of the book to read the rest.
"My wife likes to tell the story about the day I had some bug and wasn't feeling well enough to go to a rehearsal, but there was something on the program that I wanted to play, so I said: 'I'll bundle up and go, and I'll play that one piece and then come right home.' I went there feverish and in no condition really to play; but once the Maestro began the rehearsal, I became so absorbed in what we were doing that I forgot I was sick, I forgot about myself entirely; and at the end of the rehearsal I was feeling completely well. This was the effect Toscanini had: when you were playing with him your mind never wandered for one moment; you were completely absorbed in music-making and one with him and with the composer."

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Musing on Pastiches

Fritz Kreisler is famous for writing pastiche pieces for violin and piano, and, according to legend, he picked the names of the composers who "inspired" the styles of those pieces out of a music encyclopedia, even though he didn't have any way of knowing what each composer's style might have been. Back in the first decades of the 20th century nobody really knew what Francois Francoeur's music sounded like, and we still only have a few examples. The well-known E-minor cello sonata could have been written by Konstantin Petrov Popov, who edited a Russian edition from 1907, or Pepov could have been a pseudonym for another cellist/composer who really wanted to have a good baroque-style piece to play (Konstantin Petrov Popov's only listing in the IMSLP is as the editor of the E minor Francoeur Sonata). I don't have any kind of absolute proof, other than a hunch, but I'm not totally convinced that the cello sonata is written by the same person who wrote these violin sonatas sometime between 1720 and 1733.

One of my favorite musical hoax pieces is the one that Samuel Dushkin wrote in 1924. He had the nifty idea to claim that it was written by a contemporary of Mozart's named Maria Theresia von Paradis who was a pianist and a composer. She was known mostly for the high quality of her playing, the pieces that were written for her, and that fact that she was blind. This portrait demonstrates that fact by representing her eyes without irises.

Other people have suggested that Dushkin used the Romanze of the Weber Violin Sonata Opus 10, No. 1 as a model (the second movement of first sonata in this volume), but I think it owes far more of its inspiration to the Sicilienne part of Fritz Kreisler's "Sicilienne and Rigaudon."

Here's the "Paradis" Sicilienne performed (beautifully) by Jaime Laredo:

and here's the Kreisler piece ("in the style of Francoeur") from 1910 that is strikingly similar in spirit and in "violin-ness." It also just happens to have the same title as the Dushkin.

Here's a nifty NPR piece about the subject of "musical fraudsters."

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Gish Gallop Again

I couldn't resist doing this (with big apologies to Franz Liszt).

[It clocks in at two minutes, and has a mixture of familiar and unfamiliar material designed to befuddle.]

Gish Gallop

Sound Familiar?

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Playing by the Rules?

From Thursday night's debate rules:
"No props, notes, charts, diagrams or other writings can be used by the candidates; however, they can take notes on the type of paper of their choosing."
Now watch this:

Do you think that whatever Romney took out of his pocket and slyly placed on the podium while he was looking up and passing by the audience was a piece of flexible paper he wanted to take notes on? I don't think so. I also don't think that he imagined a camera would be trained him while he did it.

His campaign people have dismissed this as really being a handkerchief, which does makes sense, since a handkerchief is flexible and can curl up in your pocket. He could, however, have had notes written on said handkerchief. Sure, singers and fiddle players often bring handkerchiefs on stage with them, but they do not lay them out flat so that you could, if you wanted to, read what might be written on them. And if I were to cheat in such a way, I would make sure to mop my brow or cough into the handkerchief, and then slip it back into my pocket.

Rage Against the Machine

There used to be some advantages connected with living in a small midwestern college town. I just returned from a walk on this beautiful fall day, and found that the huge sound system that the local university installed at the end of its athletic field effectively covered up the sounds of nature I might have heard. The banter from athletic events now permeates the air on weekends. You can hear the voices clear as day from two miles away, and the city itself is only about four miles long and four miles wide, and the stadium's speakers are sitting pretty much in the physical center of town. I do like to listen to the sounds of nature when I walk, but I also like to listen music or podcasts. Today the sound system was (and is, I can still hear it blaring through the closed doors and windows of my house) turned up so loudly that I could clearly hear the names of the people competing in the athletic event of the day through my Bach, Handel, and Haydn. I imagine that these sounds send the birds elsewhere.

That this state-of-the-art sound system was set up by the university athletic department using money donated by alumni, including the rich and famous Tony Romo, a distinguished alumnus of the university. I imagine it was designed for use in a large city stadium, where the audio for athletic events has to project over the sounds of car traffic, trains, planes, sirens, people, and general city noise.

On my hour-long walk today I saw half a dozen cars. There are places for sound systems like this one, but this town isn't one of them. There's nothing anyone can do about it either.

Rant over.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Why Save PBS?

It's nice to be reminded that PBS is probably the best value out there for $1.03 per person, per year. Silly Mitt.

First Recording Ever of the 2nd Brandenburg in the High Octave

This will "blow" your mind! It was recorded in 1932 in Berlin, and the trumpet player is Paul Spörri. Albert Harzer is the flutist, Gustav Kern is the oboist, and Szymon Goldberg is the violinist. Alois Melichar conducted the Berlin Philharmonic.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

"Debate" Performance, Truth, and Lies

First of all, last night's presidential debate was not really a debate. The questions were too broad for the two-minute-response format, and the moderator did nothing to enforce the "rules," if there were any. Romney spoke loudly and quickly, and tried to sound kind of like Reagan (who was a far better actor than Romney). He raised far too many questions in his responses to the moderator's questions for anyone to rebut given the small amount of time, and I think that was part of his strategy. Obama smiled through Romney's lies, spoke slowly and deliberately, and told the truth.

The immediate criticism from my household and from all the post-debate comments I read was that Obama should have been more aggressive, and should have taken Romney to task on some issues. Some people feared that Obama lost the debate and therefore lost the election. I don't think so.

Some people wish that Obama could be more like Bill Clinton, but I don't. We already have Bill Clinton around, and if Obama tried to be like him it would appear phoney; perhaps it would be kind of like Romney coming across as a phoney Ronald Reagan. I also don't think that Michelle would appreciate him acting more Clintonesque, especially on their 20th wedding anniversary. One thing that nobody can deny about Barack Obama is that he doesn't pretend to be anything he isn't. He lives his life honestly.

I doubt that Romney persuaded anyone that his positions were better than Obama's, because he never came across with the "goods" that were asked of him. His plans, particularly his health care and economic plans, are still shrouded in mystery, and his math still doesn't add up.

But I think that Obama was actually acting strategically. He knew about Romney's bravura on the podium. Romney is a salesman, and in this campaign he is trying to sell his consulting expertise to a "client" that he believes would benefit (at a price) from his help. I hope that we never actually find out what that price might be, and I also help that we never actually find out the secret plans that he is offering "behind door number 2."

Romney has been taken to task for all of his partially true statements and all of his lies in the the post-debate fact checks. His lies are now on video tape, and can be played over and over, analyzed, and be used in ads. Obama is on video tape being deliberate, calm, direct, kind, humble, respectful, and honest. I believe that President Obama knew, while he was being attacked in this forum, that the press would come to his defense on matters of fact and truth, and that people who played back the tape or read the transcript would be able to make up their own minds and make their voting decisions based on truth. He didn't need to play Romney's "game." And it was Romney's game. Romney made sure of it from the start.

I'm really looking forward to watching Joe Biden and Paul Ryan next week! He can take Ryan to task on everything that Romney said in this debate.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Fish Story

I have been thinking about that "give a man a fish, teach a man to fish" story in relation to the way that music tends to work in the fishbowl-like way I see music in rural America these days. Yesterday I wrote about the native "art music" of my area, and the way a certain segment of the local population really enjoys playing (at any level) and listening (to musicians that play at any level). It speaks to the power of music itself, and the durability of folk music everywhere. People who play without worrying about the purity of their sounds, the quality of their vibrato, or even the accuracy of their intonation can still enjoy the way music helps build community and cement friendship.

My problem is that I do worry about the purity of my sound, the quality of my sound, the the accuracy of my intonation, and I have been kind of obsessed with this way of making music for a long time, and on many different instruments. It is just the way I'm wired.

Some women spend time putting on make-up and shopping so that they can dress in a way that is "just so." I'm perfectly happy wearing comfortable clothes that might be decades old, but I will go to all sorts of pains to avoid playing out of tune, and will do everything I can in order to make a vibrant and beautiful sound. I tend to attract (or at least keep) students who value what I have to teach, but for some reason (because living in a fishbowl where there are only a given number of people interested in playing, and other people teaching) the number of students I am teaching now is at an all-time low.

It makes me feel pretty lousy.

When I was young I used to think that I could help to make the world a better place through music. I believed it with all my heart and soul, because I felt that music was singular. I felt that music was the clearest way to communicate truth and authenticity, and I have dedicated my life to trying to play in a way that communicates truth. It takes a lot of soul searching and a lot of practice to meet Bach face to face and play a phrase that is as strong and as true as Bach would have imagined it to be. I heard many, many, many people play in a way I would consider "true" when I was younger, and I saw my ability to recognize that "truth" when I heard it to be kind of a gift; not the kind of gift you talk about when you say that someone is "gifted," but the kind of gift you talk about when you can go directly to experiencing pleasure and surprise from what others might consider relatively unremarkable. It's a gift that keeps giving itself to me, and it's one that I believe I can share with my students--if they are willing to listen.

I sometimes find that kind of musical "truth" present in young children who play, and through a certain amount of work and awareness, finding musical truth (even momentary musical truth) happens during lessons with adults too. It happens in cities everywhere, and it sometimes happens in small fish-bowl communities like mine. Not being able, for reasons beyond my control, to take part in it to the extent I once did feels like a real loss.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

City Mouse, Country Mouse, City Music, Country Music

I suppose you could say that I am a city mouse, and since moving to the "country" 27 years ago, I haven't changed my stripes. I still busy myself with "city" (or old-school city) things, and I haven't forsaken city music for the country music that seems to be the music that really puts down roots and flourishes in this area. You could call it a Platzgeist.

Country music around here runs rather deep. There is a fiddle tradition that has deep roots in southern Illinois and Missouri, and, thanks to a bunch of musicians (some who happen to have grown up in the very town I'm writing from), that tradition has been preserved, and is still being preserved the old-fashioned way. The operative word for how this music is being preserved seems to be the word "collected," because people learn traditional fiddle tunes by going out into the country and playing with the old fiddlers who either made them up or learned them from another (perhaps even older) fiddler.

My friend Gaye Harrison, who was married to the recently (as in a few weeks ago) departed Garry Harrison, used the word "collected" to give the origin of a fiddle tune she played the other night (she was playing with a former student of mine who decided to try out life in the world of old-time music rather than the life of old-school music) at an enthusiastically-attended outdoor fundraising event.

I certainly don't begrudge people choosing old-time music over old-school music, but, being a "city mouse," I have never been very good at making old-time music myself.

We know a terrific plumber named Rick who grew up in Charleston during the 1960s and 70s. He loves to recite the various businesses that used to be on the town square, naming their owners, and discussing various features of the bowels of their buildings (which he knows intimately). It was a flourishing place of commerce. Rick told us that while he was growing up there wasn't anything anyone could possibly need that you couldn't get on the square.

Yesterday I had a phone conversation with a man in his 90s who grew up in Mattoon, a town eight miles west of Charleston, in the 1930s and 40s (he read about our Jewish Community Center in the Chicago Tribune). He talked about Mattoon as a paradise: an extremely tolerant and friendly place where businesses thrived. It was an important railroad town, complete with a roundhouse, and people who went into business there could have things sent in by train (fruit, furniture, hardware, clothes, you name it), and sell it in their stores.

Nobody in Charleston really had the need to go to Mattoon to get anything (Charleston had goods delivered by train as well), and nobody in Mattoon really needed to go to Charleston to get anything, except for "high-brow" culture.

Charleston has a university, and at one point the university had a president who loved music, and he encouraged the university to start a school of music. The school of music attracted some excellent musicians, and it looked like Charleston could eventually become a cultural center. I found a town plan in the public library that had an elaborate proposal (complete with pictures) to turn Charleston into a cultural resort-type town with an arts festival kind of like Interlochen. It all had something to do with a fake lake project, and I suppose this plan was part of Charleston's bid to get the lake, which would bring resort-type tourism to the area. People moved to town to get in on this project from the start, but the lake went to the town of Shelbyville, and the arts center was forgotten.

The Zeitgeist changed after that president retired, and the school of music became a department of music. The people (all city mice, like me) brought here as faculty members of the school of music have all retired, and many of them are no longer alive.

But the music that is native to the area is kept alive by people who care about it, and that is something to celebrate.

Monday, October 01, 2012

The United States of Alec

If you have 56 minutes, it would be really worth your while to watch this video made by Bill Moyers. If you don't have time to watch, take a look at the transcript.

I hate to use this space for things political, but with the privatization and "monetization" of everything, music and those of us who play it and write it (as well as those of us who listen to it) will have our lives changed drastically if this kind of thing continues. And the "beauty" of this widespread scheme is that it's all legal. Before our very eyes we have a "not-for-profit" institution that calls itself "educational" (so it doesn't pay taxes) doing the work that lobbyists are not allowed to do under the law.

Please watch this, and then share it with people you care about. I hate to go all negative here, but this is really SCARY, and really WRONG. This sort of thing should not happen in a democracy.

A Glimpse into the GOP's Twisted Mirror

That, at heart, is the twisted beauty of the plan being championed by Ryan and Romney: The higher Republicans manage to drive up the debt, the more ammunition they have in their fight to slash federal spending for the needy. And the more time they waste trumpeting their "fiscal discipline," the more the nation's infrastructure will continue to crumble around them. Squandering two full workweeks of the congressional calendar on votes to repeal Obamacare has cost taxpayers $48 million. That's nearly the same amount of money now needed to repair cracks in the Capitol itself – spending the House GOP has refused to authorize, out of anti-governmental spite. "If the House wants the dome to fall in," said Senate Appropriations chair Ben Nelson, "I hope it falls on their side." If the Republicans experience a crushing blow as a result of their hard-right agenda, of course, it won't be caused by the laws of physics – it will be delivered by the voters on Election Day.
Read Tim Dickinson's article in Rolling Stone.