Thursday, January 29, 2015

Five Times is The Charm

I have made my way through 47% of sixth grade math over at the Khan Academy, and now things are slowing down quite a bit. I'm still putting in the same amount of work and time, but my progress is now moving in centimeters rather than in feet or even inches (I have completed 47% of sixth grade math, and from the average number of problems I answer correctly, I would give myself the grade of C so far). In order to show the algorithm that you know a skill, you need to get five problems in a row right. When you can get five problems right, you move further along in your quest towards completing the sixth grade. Each percentage point is hard won at this point.

There is certainly something about being able to do something five times in a row correctly. It is my new yardstick to assure me that I know a difficult passage in a piece of music. If I can repeat something five times in a row correctly (at the arrived-at tempo marking), I could probably repeat it correctly a hundred times.

Perhaps five times IS the charm.

Five times what? You ask.

Monday, January 26, 2015

How Classical Music Changed my Life

This piece of paper, a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy, spent the past 30 years in one of Michael's bookcases. The photocopy of the original came from my harpist friend Carrie Kourkoumelis, who, armed with a Xerox machine, used to send random clippings through the mail to people who might appreciate them. I did. I saved. And I am now sharing it here.

[October 2016 update: a very kind reader send me a better copy!]

I am also transcribing:
The other day at Ma Maison, as I was waiting for the attendant to retrieve my chocolate brown 450 SLC, the Saudi prince I'd been noshing with said, "Say, Bill, how did an unassuming guy like yourself come to be so rich, so trim, so . . . sexy?"

My eyes grew misty. "it wasn't always this way, Ahmed, old buddy . . ."

My mind raced back to the Bad Time, before the investment tips, the real estate empire, before Dino bought my screen play and I bought my Columbia 50 . . .

Once I was a lot like you.

Working at a nowhere job, hitting the singles bars, watching situation comedies in my free time. I tipped the scales at a hefty 232, but my bank balance couldn't have tipped the bus boy at the Midnight Mission.

Finally, I hit bottom. . . picked up by the Castiac police for barreling my old heap the wrong way over some parking lot spikes.

My last friend in this lonely world, Hardy Gustavsen, set me straight while he was driving me back to L.A.

"Bill, get hold of yourself! Start listening to KFAC!"

"Gosh Hardy, don't they play classical music? I'm not sure I cotton to that high brow stuff!"

Aside from a couple of summers at Tanglewood and Aspen, and one semester in Casals' Master Class . . .

I knew absolutely nothing about classical music.

"Bill, who would be wrong if you got better?"

Looking into his steely blue eyes, I realized Hardy was right. I resolved to give KFAC a shot.

At first, it was quite painful. Listening to all those 100-piece groups was confusing--I was used to having the drums on the right and the bass on the left and the singer in the middle. All those semidemisemiquavers made my head spin.

But I started to feel the beneficial effects of classical music listening in just one short week.

In no time, I was using napkins with every meal, I switched from Bourbon to an unpretentious Montrachet and I become able to hear sirens even with my car windows rolled up.

Soon I was spending every night with KFAC and a good book, like Aquinas' Summa Theologica.

I realized that some of the wealthiest, most famous people in this world listened to classical music--Napoleon, Bismarck, George Washington, Beethoven. . . and many others who are yet alive today.

Then I met Marlene. The first girl who knew there was more to Also Sprach Zarathustra than the theme from 2001. And I fell in love.

Today, I'm on top of the world with a wonderful wife, close friends in high places and a promising career in foreign currency manipulation.

Can classical music do for you what it did for me?

A few years back, scientific studies showed that when dairy cows are played classical music the quantity and quality of their milk dramatically improves.

Now if it can do that for plain old moo cows, imagine what it can do for you!

Can you afford KFAC?

Is lox kosher?

Even though marking surveys show that KFAC's audience is the most affluent assemblage of nice people in Southern California, yes, you can afford KFAC! Thanks to their Special Introductory Offer, you can listen FREE OF CHARGE for as many hours as you like without obligation!

Begin the KFAC habit today.

Remember, the longest journey begins by getting dressed. Don't let this opportunity slip through your fingers. Tune to KFAC right NOW, while you're thinking about it.

And get ready for a spectacular improvement in your life.

Warn your family and friends that you may start dressing for dinner.

You may lose your taste for beer nuts.

and the next time you're on the freeway thinking of playing with your nose, you'll find yourself asking:

"Really. Would a KFAC listener do this?"

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Math, Music, and Intuition

In my last post about math I mentioned that I didn't think that math and music had much to do with one another, but now that I have spent the past week spending at least an hour a day on sixth-grade math (I'm 39% through the 6th grade over at the Khan Academy), I can honestly report that doing math and understanding what I am doing when I am doing it has a positive influence on the way I practice and the way I think when I'm playing.

I have had a physical aversion to math since the sixth grade. Part of the physicality of my aversion had, no doubt, to do with the fact that I had become near-sighted and had to strain to see the blackboard in my sixth-grade classroom. I struggled until I got glasses some time in the seventh grade, and by that time I chalked up my inability in math to pure inability. The eye strain was gone, but the residual brain strain of having missed developing significant skills remained.

That's about the time I started relying on my intuition. Intuition has done me well. Avoiding anything having to do with numbers and quantities allowed me to develop a startlingly high degree of intuition. But intuition doesn't help when you are counting measures rest, and the very numbers themselves give rise to confusion. As Stevens Hewitt so beautifully put it, "The most difficult part of playing the oboe (or by implication any other instrument) is knowing exactly when." Gradually learning to accept numbers as friends has helped me to keep my place when counting rests. I noticed the results in less than a week of doing sixth-grade math.

I notice tendencies in my math exercises that I notice in other parts of my life. I sometimes "see" numbers that are not there. I sometimes transpose numbers. I sometimes don't read the whole problem, and leave out the most important part. The problem of attention is easy to get around when there is not a correct answer that needs to be found.

My intuition has allowed me to estimate sizes and distances, and for the most part I have been very lucky. The times when I have not been lucky have caused me to waste a lot of time (and sometimes resources, like paper). There other day I needed to use Finale to convert a passage written in flats to one written in sharps. Normally I would guess at the size of the margins I would need, but this time I located the "ruler" feature in the program, and I used a physical ruler to measure the width I needed to match on the page. I grabbed the ruler before guessing. I trusted that the ruler would be right. I got the passage to fit perfectly. (And I could also actually play the passage, weeks after hitting my head against the previous notation.)

After spending time with graphing, I have started to think of the positions of my fingers on the fingerboard as points on a graph. I have started to think about the distances between my fingers just a little bit differently.

Perhaps the most revealing thing about doing sixth-grade math is the fact that there is a right answer to any problem I encounter. When I get that right answer I am as right as anyone else doing the same problem. I belong to a small community of "right-ness."

Speaking of math, it's time to do a few more problems.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Concert in Rhinebeck, New York

I was very excited to learn this morning that some musicians (flutist Eugenia Zukerman, pianist Babette Hierholzer, and soprano Kimberly Kahan) will be performing one of my pieces in Rhinebeck, New York this Sunday. Here's a screen shot of the article, and here's a link to it. I imagine they will be performing either "Asleep in the Deep," "Bird in a Gilded Cage" or "In the Gold Room." These are pieces in a series I refer to as "new tunes for old songs."

Wednesday, January 14, 2015


By the time my children reached the sixth grade I could no longer help them with math. Sixth grade was that time in my life where I tried to "fit in" with the kids around me, and I lost a lot of ground making stupid mistakes. I stopped playing violin, and I no longer took the academic work of school seriously. I suppose that you could say it was a time of rebellion, but I recall that prior to the beginning of sixth grade, most of my interest in things having to do with learning and music was self directed. Nobody made me practice or made me do homework. When I did do homework, I used a crutch. When I stopped practicing violin it was simply assumed that I did not have any interest in playing, and when I did poorly in math, it was probably assumed that I didn't have any aptitude. My low SAT scores didn't matter, because I was going to music school. I had to wait until taking the GRE was not required before I was able to get a Master's Degree.

When I realized that I really needed to play an instrument somewhere in the middle of the 7th grade, the violin was something I didn't feel I could go back to. As a result of not playing attention in sixth grade math class, I was lost when it came to 7th grade math. I never thought to ask for help. All I really cared about during jr. high school was music, and my teachers were all impressed with my dedication to music. Perhaps they bought into the myth that music and math are pretty much the same thing. I am living proof that they are not. The fact that I graduated from high school (there was not much of a math requirement, and "easy" math counted as part of it) proves that intuition can get you far enough to fool people. For some odd reason I do remember something about geometry, and I do recall finding it a lot of fun. I never understood algebra.

Here's my stash of books from the library. My plan is to start learning 6th grade math now, and then I plan to make my way through the subsequent levels in order to become math literate.

I did it with the violin, I did it with writing music, and I am doing it with the piano. Any guidance from readers who are sympathetic to my cause would be highly appreciated.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Scenes from EMMA will be Performed in New York on May 13, 2015

I'm very excited to let you know that Leonard Lehrman and Helene Williams will be performing some scenes from my 2008 opera EMMA as part of a seminar about Jewish Opera. The seminar series, which begins next week, will be held at the Community Church, 40 East 35th Street, in New York City.