Monday, June 29, 2015

Enough Never Is

The poor have little,
Beggars none;
The rich too much
Enough not one
Benjamin Franklin (quoted above) was talking about money, but I think that we musicians suffer from a different kind of perpetual deficit. It would not be too much of a leap to assume that most musicians in the non-pop field are not in music mainly for the money. Music as a profession actually makes little economic sense since the amount of work musicians put in (practicing and learning music, building and maintaining technique, rehearsing, marketing) and the costs of the materials involved (the cost of buying and maintaining instruments, the costs of travel, and the costs of publicity materials) rarely make for a balanced equation when you consider the way musicians are compensated for their work (though some of us make more than others). Job security, particularly of late, is anything but secure.

But this post is not about money. It's about feeling validated for the work we do, which is something that I never seem to feel. Even after getting a great review (or rather a favorable mention at the end of a great review), I do not feel truly satisfied. Kind words from people I know (and people I do not know) help, but there never seem to be enough, because enough never is.

If I have a good day practicing or rehearsing, the rewards from that experience happen in real time. They happen while I am at work. Once the music stops, and the memory of it fades (which happens quite soon) they no longer apply. If I practice well, I play well. But if I don't practice for a day, I usually don't play as well as I did the day before. If I do, there isn't anything I can do to guarantee it could happen again. I guess that with practicing, enough never is.

I am in a state of constant assault and constant self-doubt when I am writing something, though the process is punctuated with feelings of exhilaration and stimulation. And when there is nothing more I can do to the music, there it is (and in the case of finishing a piece, enough actually is).

But I have to move on, because that feeling of "there it is" only lasts for a very short time. Perhaps it is that little sliver of satisfaction that we all live for and want to find again.

I did set some of Benjamin Franklin's words to music (and probably will again, because enough never is). The score, parts, and a computer-generated recording are in the IMSLP

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Marshall Fine's Music in Homage, Op. 69

Robert Patterson made a beautiful edition of my brother Marshall's Music in Homage (a piece that he wrote 1991 for violin, horn, and piano) and uploaded it into the IMSLP. Patterson, violinist Gregory Maytan, and pianist Maeve Brophy gave the first performance of the piece earlier in June, and there is now an excellent recording of it in the IMSLP.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

A Very Nice Performance of My Pachelbel Canon Transcription

I was really pleased to find this lovely performance of my Pachelbel Canon transcription by a string quartet in Japan (I think) on YouTube, so I'm sharing it here.

[You can find the score and parts here.]

Friday, June 26, 2015

Inside Out: A Movie for Grown-ups

Inside Out is about a "typical" girl who has a "typical" emotional response to moving from the place she spent all 11 of her childhood years to somewhere new. We learn about her from the "cocktail" of emotional functionaries inside of her brain. In the scene below we actually get to meet the emotional functionaries in her parents' brains as well.

Here are Riley's "controllers" for (in order) Disgust, Anger, Joy, Sadness, and Fear:

Here are Riley's father's "controllers" for (in order) Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust:

Here are Riley's mother's "controllers: for (in order) Fear, Joy, Sadness, Anger, and Disgust:

The marketing people for the film use the zany characters in Riley's head to attract children to the movie, but it seems that the real point of the film (which shows on four screens in our local mini-multiplex) is to help teach parents about what may be going on in the mind of their 11-year-old child during times of stress. It might also give teenagers a sense about how their minds might work, though from the response of the teenagers who shared the theater with us yesterday, I doubt it will have much of an impact. Clearly the target audience here is precocious little kids, 11-year-olds, and adults.

Michael went to the movie reluctantly, and he loved it. I can't stop thinking about it. (I didn't lose sleep over it, but now I have an enhanced understanding about how sleep works.)

Riley's controllers are male and female. Anger and fear are male; Joy, Sadness, and Disgust are all female. They are also all different shapes and sizes. Her father's mustachioed controllers are all male, except for Joy, which looks a lot like Riley's Joy. They are all pretty much the same size, except for Fear. The mother's controllers are also the same size (except for fear), and they bear a distinct family resemblance to Riley's controllers. Her controllers are concerned about Reily, and her husband's controllers are thinking about watching a soccer game.

Inside Riley's control room there would, of course, be many more emotions than the ones given roles here, but these five serve as an excellent cast, with Joy and Sadness in the leading roles. There are also other functionary characters we meet along the way, and we get to spend some time with her imaginary friend. Riley has "islands" of memory (memory palaces, if you will) like family, honesty, goofiness, and hockey. We all have our own personal islands of memory. I suppose the longer we are alive and the more memories we make, the more populated the sea of islands. If we grown-ups have continents in addition to islands, my map would have a whole continent for Bach.

My recommendation? See the movie. Watch the trailer.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Memory Palaces

I am not a conductor, and will never be, but I had a wonderful time leading last night's Summer Strings rehearsal. I got as far back and as high up as I could to get as many people as possible into this photo.

I usually spend rehearsal time holding down the viola section while someone competent does the conducting. I also make the arrangements. Last night our conductor was unable to come to rehearsal, and we had four people in the viola section, so I conducted the rehearsal. It was the first time I had ever heard my arrangements from the position of a conductor. I was really pleased with the way my arrangements worked, and I loved to see and hear how much people enjoyed playing them. It was really exciting.

I didn't get much sleep because I just couldn't get the music we rehearsed out of my head. It was great fun, and it was a highly productive rehearsal. I do wonder how conductors actually get to sleep after conducting a rehearsal.

Anyway . . .

Michael and I went to the Farmer's Market at around 7:30 this morning, and we popped into a new book store that had opened up on the square. Joe, the owner of the book store, is a friendly man who to attended the local university in the 1980s. He recently moved to Charleston from Chicago because of his fond memories of the town, particularly the university station where I spent 13 years as the classical music director, and Michael had a weekly jazz program. Joe thanked us many times for the work that we did. The people who run the current university station (with the same call letters and the same frequency) somehow managed to wipe those 13 wonderful radio years out of their history, but there are people who remember.

I wrote a blog post about the station back in 2007.

After we brought our goodies home from the market and the book store (I picked up a copy of Moby Dick, which was exactly what I was looking for), I took my iPod for a walk and listened to an episode of Radio Diaries called "Welcome to the Memory Palace". This podcast was all about Guglielmo Marconi and his theory about sounds (including radio broadcasts) continuing to travel infinite distances after they are broadcast. I believe that Marconi's theory has been scientifically proven to be wrong, but this morning's adventure shows a different way that radio signals can travel. They can echo in the palace of memory.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Chamber Music in 20th-Century America

Meloclassic just put a wonderful video about chamber music in America on Facebook.

In this 17-minute segment from the 1991 French video Les Musiciens du Quatuor - Reprise, Dernier Mouvement, we can see footage of Louis Kransner, Eugene Lehner, and Joel Krosnick coaching string quartets at Tanglewood. There is a generous interview with Eugene Lehner, one with Leonard Stein (who was a student of Schoenberg), and one with Eleanor Aller talking about the genesis of the Hollywood Quartet and their performance for Schoenberg of his Verklärte Nacht at his home. There are short film clips of Bruno Walter, Jascha Heifetz, Pierre Monteux, Igor Stravinsky, Ossip Gabrilowitch, and Gregor Piatigorsky, and there are filmed performances of the Budapest Quartet playing some of the last movement of Beethoven Op. 59, no. 3 and the Hollywood Quartet playing some of the Wolf Italian Serenade with an unconventional quartet set-up that allowed all the musicians to be filmed by a single still camera.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Remembering Gunther Schuller

When I was growing up in Boston, Gunther Schuller was a giant. When I last saw him two years ago he was 87 and still towering, both physically and intellectually, over most of the musical world. I had the great privilege of writing a review of his autobiography, and have written a few other posts about him in recent years:

Gens and Such: A Ramble about Gunther Schuller
Food for Thought from Gunther Schuller

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Pathways Musical and Otherwise

A couple of weeks ago I was thinking about my youngest brother while I was hiking in the woods. He goes to concerts several times a week--sometimes more than one on any given day. He picks some of his concerts because of associations he has with the people who are playing, and he picks some of his concerts for the music that is being played. Often the concerts he chooses are given by musicians who know one or another person in our family, so his associations become more and more personal as he continues to follow his musical paths

I love to hike in the woods. I love following trails because they help me make sense of the immediate world at hand. I have to trust that a well-worn trail will lead me safely to wonderful places in the woods, and I have to trust that a good trail will lead me safely out of the woods. Sometimes there are choices to be made when trails intersect, and I have to go with the experience that the trail I pick gives me on that particular day, and on that particular walk. If I take the same trail through the woods on different days, the trail will be different because of the nature of the living things that live by the trail.

For me the concert-going experience is more similar to following trails in the woods than the record-listening experience because of the physical commitment, but the record-listening experience does have its own mappable pathways. It is also possible to map pathways in literature, poetry, drama, film, philosophy, science, sports, and even food.

One thing leads to another.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

For Your Entertainment!

From 1958 until 1961 The Swe danes (Alice Babs, Svend Asmussen, and Ulrik Neumann made some terrific music.

[Thanks to Michael for finding this gem!]

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Solo Bach

I practice solo Bach every day. Since I play viola, I can alternate between transcriptions of the Suites for solo cello and the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin. Performing solo Bach for people (aside from demonstrations for students) is not something I had ever considered doing.

Yesterday morning I filled in at the last minute for a friend who was unable to play violin (solo) for an outdoor funeral. I decided to play viola because I have a viola that can handle the rigors of outdoor playing, and all the reqested music was set low in the violin register. Just before leaving the house I put my volume of Bach Cello Suites in my bag, thinking of my father, who put his volume of Bach Suites in his case when we were leaving his house to play a Mozart Duo movement for Marshall's memorial service, just in case it was necessary. (That pun was unintentional, but I'll let it stand.)

The Bach G-major Prelude was perfect music to play while people arrived and seated themselves in the tent for yesterday's service, so I played it. Suddenly the Prelude I knew so well seemed unfamiliar. I heard it differently. It had a purpose in this place and with these people. After the service I flipped to the Allemande from the C-major Suite, and used it as a postlude. I found myself playing it at a different tempo from my usual practice tempo, but somehow it felt right for the moment. I took the repeat in the first section, and the last person left the tent at the G-major cadence. It seemed right to stop. I did. G major to G major.

I find it very interesting how solo Bach can adapt to circumstances almost on its own. I look forward to the next opportunity to see what happens!

Monday, June 08, 2015

Flute Playing and Natural Selection

I have always believed that making a good sound on the flute has much to do with the ability to fold the tongue in order to direct the air. There are people who can fold their tongues, and there are people who cannot. It is a genetic trait. I imagine that those who cannot control the shape of their tongues (folding the tongue into a shape like a hot dog roll, or into the shape of the kind of leaf that can hold water) are people who might, after a little experience with the instrument, seek out musical paths that do not involve playing the flute.

A google search on the matter took me to an explanation of the genetics that provided a wonderful surprise:
In humans, the ability to flute (roll) one's tongue is a dominant allele F to the inability to flute the tongue, f. A student who cannot flute his tongue has a nephew who cannot flute his tongue; however, the nephew's mother(the student's sister) can flute her tongue. etc. . .
How odd that the ability to control the folding of the tongue, which I believe is necessary for making a good sound on the flute, is called fluting!

My experience with fluting the tongue is highly personal and certainly not scientific. I have never had a flute student who couldn't flute his or her tougue, and I haven't found any studies that address the matter, but would love to know if anyone reading this who cannot flute his or her tongue has had trouble trying to make a good sound on the flute.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Thinking Like a Wind Player vs. Thinking Like a String Player

A few weeks ago oboist Jennet Ingle wrote a post about the difference between the ways that string players and wind players rehearse. I thought that the comment I left today (somewhat edited here) responding to Jennet's question about teaching like a wind player might make an interesting post.

I always teach my string students about breath support, and how using the diaphragm can help with shifting and with saving bow. For students who have played wind instruments, I make analogies between the mechanics of the hand and arm and the mechanics of the air column and the tongue. I explain how the hand and fingers can be directly associated with the tongue, when you consider how we use our hands and arms when we talk, and when you consider how readily sign language becomes an instant vehicle of expression.

I suppose I will always think of phrasing like a wind player, unencumbered by the need to bow in either one direction or the other, but I also consciously take advantage of the fact that I can breathe during long notes when playing the violin or the viola. I believe that this extra-physical "power" is something that makes string playing compelling: string players can physically breathe in places that wind players and singers cannot. Heifetz used that kind of phrasing to great advantage.

String players often strive to phrase like wind players and singers. The idea makes a great deal of musical sense, but it is a physical impossibility, so string players have to create the illusion of phrasing like a singer. String players have to learn the physical sensation of having not enough air (in the case of the flute--in my experience), or too much air (in the case of the oboe and the recorder), and "translate" the experience into string-based actions. Running out of bow feels a little like running out of breath to me, but to someone who does not have the experience of being a wind player may not understand the sensation.

Wind players do not readily have the physical tools to make the kinds of contrasts in articulation and textures that string players can make, since all the mechanics for expression are on the inside, so wind players have to develop imagination. After years and years of having to rely on pure imagination in order to be able to have the colors and textures I wanted to have in my flute playing, that imagination still kicks in right away when I am teaching.

The pure string-playing approach to problems having to do with phrasing often takes visible physical elements into account first. Once those are under control (holding the instrument and the bow, the alignment and configuration of the left hand, the amount of bow being used and the location of that amount, the ease and comfort involved in getting from one note to the next), then we can concentrate on the relationships of notes within a phrase.

The wind-playing approach, as I see it, comes from creating a technique that is based on the relationship of the diaphragm to the throat and the tongue. When everything is in place, the diaphragm's role in taking in air opens the throat and lifts the soft palate. As long as the tongue remains in a forward position, there is air in the mouth. As long as the diaphragm remains strong and deep (without tensing the abdominal muscles), the air column will allow musical whims to happen, as long as the fingers remain efficient. Once the physical balance is set up you can spend a whole lesson on the musical aspects of the music at hand.

In my own string practice I find that I have to concentrate on the physical relationships of bow to string most of the time. If those physical relationships are working properly, then I can think about where phrases are going and how they relate to one another, but I find most often that I have to do something physical in order to make phrases come out the way I want them to. When practicing recorder (I don't have a working modern flute, so I don't practice that instrument) I find that once I am "set up" I don't need to do any physical "thinking" in order to have a phrase go where I want it to go.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Stop "Defending" Music!

Peter Greene, keeper of the Curmuducation blog writes:
Listening to music is profoundly human. It lets us touch and understand some of our most complicated feelings. It helps us know who we are, what we want, how to be ourselves in the world. And because we live in an age of vast musical riches from both past and present, we all have access to exactly the music that suits our personality and mood. Music makes the fingers we can use to reach into our own hearts.

Making music is even more so. With all that music can do just for us as listeners, why would we not want to unlock the secrets of expressing ourselves through it? We human beings are driven to make music as surely as we are driven to speak, to touch, to come closer to other humans. Why would we not want to give students the chance to learn how to express themselves in this manner?

Music is freakin' magical. In forty-some years I have never gotten over it-- you take some seemingly random marks on a page, you blow air through a carefully constructed tube, and what comes out the other side is a sound that can convey things that words cannot. And you just blow air through a tube. Or pull on a string. Or whack something. And while we can do a million random things with a million random objects, somehow, when we just blow some air through a tube, we create sounds that can move other human beings, can reach right into our brains and our hearts. That is freakin' magical.
Without knowing it (until now, perhaps), Peter Greene has been a virtual guest today in our tri-coastal household (Los Angeles, Boston, and our Illinois town which is a couple of hours east of the Mississippi, which we sometimes consider to be a coast). Today's post, Stop "Defending" Music, hits all the right notes in my book.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Empathy and Musicianship

There other day I was thinking about humility vs. what may or may not be considered narcissism in the musical community, but I actually think that empathy as it relates to the musical community is a much more interesting subject. A few months ago I wrote a post about mirror-touch synesthesia. I believe that people who study music develop some synesthetic skills, even if they are not organically "wired" to have synesthesia. I tell my students that musicians develop ears that see and eyes that hear. I also tell them that through practice their sense of touch becomes connected in all sorts of ways to their sense of hearing and seeing. I notice that when people play together a certain degree of empathy pours out of its mysterious lamp, and as people become less and less occupied with what their partners in musical "crime" think of them, the total degree of musical empathy increases.

I wonder if musical empathy is something organic or something that is learned. There are musicians who have excellent coordination of eyes, ears, hands, and arms, but they have difficulty connecting emotionally to others while playing. I am one of those people who always follows and always connects to the people I am playing with, often compensating for another person's lack of ability (or willingness) to connect. I believe that if I try hard enough, I can break down the psychological walls that separate me from my musical partners, and we can make music together. There are also people with whom I don't need to try to connect. We simply connect, even if we are playing together for the first time.

There are people who believe the emotional nature of music, particularly listening to live performances of music, helps people become more empathetic. I think that a faster track towards truly developing empathy comes from active participation in musical activities and consciously practicing the art of connection. I would even venture to say that participating in musical activities (singing together, playing chamber music, and playing and singing in larger groups) teaches people to become better citizens because making the collective experience worthwhile depends on cooperation. It is always necessary in larger non-elite ensembles to find common ground between people with a wide range of musical ability and experience. Learning how to do this in musical situations makes a great example for working together with others in non-musical situations.

Monday, June 01, 2015

Frank Battisti Talks about Teaching

I had the great fortune of spending my last year of high school playing in the Massachusetts Youth Wind Ensemble with Frank Battisti as our conductor. He was an extremely inspiring teacher and conductor, and he still delivers a compelling messages about what it means to teach music.

Here he makes it clear that if we were to teach people to love music we wouldn't have to sell music to people.

Here he talks about rehearsal time:

Here he talks about creativity:

. . . and on competition and cooperation: