Monday, November 28, 2016

Thoughts About Musical Memory

I am impressed by people who can memorize music and then perform that music from memory. I have (thankfully) only had to do it a few times in my life. The first time was in a lesson with Julius Baker during my first year at Juilliard. I was playing a Casterede etude for him. He asked me if I could play it from memory, and I had practiced the piece so many times (for many years) that I was able to play it for him without looking at the music (It was a short etude, and I had just played it with the music in front of me.)

I must have been playing that etude by ear and by feel. I wouldn't say that I was playing it by memory. I don't know if I could have done it again. Luckily I didn't have to find out. When my mother studied with Julius Baker in the 1950s, she had to play everything from memory (which she could do: she had absolute pitch and an incredible memory). I'm grateful that Baker softened up a bit by the 1970s, but he was still impressed by people who could play from memory.

When playing scales and arpeggios on the flute without looking at music, I have to take time to think about what notes I might be playing. When playing scales and arpeggios on the viola or the violin, I have to think about what position I might happen to be in, what instrument I am playing, and what string I happen to be on before I could begin to tell you what scale or arpeggio I might be playing.

I do not memorize music well. I have tried. Again and again. I can rattle off songs I learned long ago, but my interpretation and understanding of them hasn't changed since my adolescent brain imprinted them in the "permanent" section of my memory banks. There are theme songs to television shows, songs from musicals and operettas I did in Junior High and High School, the first dozen or so lines of the poem, "Cut" by Sylvia Plath that I recited as part of an "avant garde" band piece we did in high school where everyone had to recite a different poem at the same time, songs I sang with my kids when they were little, much of the Mozart D major Flute Concerto, Syrinx, the Gluck melody from Orpheus, and the Baker set of daily warm-up excerpts. These are things I learned by rote.

I can make it through some of the first movement of the Bach E-major Partita on the violin without the music in front of me, but I always end up modulating to an impossible key before I realize that I have gotten myself off track. I can also make it through the first movement of the Bach G-major Cello Suite once in a while, and occasionally I surprise myself to find that I can play other movements in the Cello Suites without music. But I can't tell you which ones.

When I practice the E-major Partita (in A major on the viola) with music, I get new musical insights every time. And when I practice the G-major Cello Suite with music I learn something new every time. For me having the music in front of me allows me the freedom to group notes in new (for me) ways. Having the music in front of me helps me to really know where I have been, where I am, and where I am going. It gives me a foot hold. It helps me feel at ease playing in front of people. Playing with the music in front of me becomes more about the music than it does about my playing of the music.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Joy of Hard Work: Getting From Can't to Can

While I believe that every child should have the opportunity to participate in musical activities, and I think that it is beneficial to everyone to study an instrument (or voice) with a good teacher, I have learned from experience that the only people who truly succeed at playing a musical instrument are the people who get enjoyment from the hard work of practicing.

Getting from can't to can is a profound journey, and it is a journey I have taken many times with different instruments. I have finally found the instrument I love to practice most of all (the viola), and feel extremely fortunate that I have put in enough work so that I use the word "can't" only rarely. I also love the journey between can't and can with the viola as much as I appreciate being able to play my instrument in a way that expresses my deepest inner voice. And every new piece allows for the possibility of a new and interesting journey.

In my nearly 40 years of teaching (nearly 40 years!), the students who seem to have gotten the greatest benefit from studying music are the students who enjoy the process of making improvements in their playing by taking baby steps: notching passages with a metronome, becoming aware of how they feel when using their playing mechanisms efficiently, and gaining an understanding of the possibilities to be found in a musical phrase.

Some people are "wired" to practice and play, and some people are "wired" to do other things. People who do not get pleasure out of the process of practicing might find that they get more pleasure out of the process of working hard at something other than music. My hope is that my students who no longer play find an area of concentration that asks them to work hard, and that they find joy in the process of improving in their area of concentration through consistent work. I also hope that they keep music in their lives and do not associate no longer playing with a sense of failure. And then there is the secret pie-in-the-sky hope that when they get to a point in their lives where they want to try playing again, I hope that they find new enjoyment in the hard work that all of us have to do in order to get from can't to can.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

New Mozart Flute Concerto?

I saw a notice that the very first performance of a recently-discovered flute concerto by W. A. Mozart will be live-streamed from Istanbul on December 2 by way of Tutti Mozart's FaceBook page, but it is not clear (to me, at least) if this is a work that is totally original or a piece written by Johann Baptist Wendling with some help from Mozart. Somehow I imagine that a discovery of a new Mozart concerto would have made large ripples in the musicological ether. I can't seem to find any at this point.

People interested will have to do some calculations regarding the time of the concert, taking the International Date Line into consideration. I might sit this one out, but I'm sharing the link here anyway.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Off Topic, But On My Mind

Michael mentioned that I hadn't written anything about this election on my blog, so I decided to interrupt my scales to say what is distracting me from practicing them properly. I'll be brief. Music is a distraction that I need to fill the larger part of my brain right now because the only positive thing I can see in Tuesday's election of Donald Trump is the possibility of a way out of a Trump presidency.

There is one that makes sense to me. You can read about it in Douglas Anthony Cooper's article in yesterday's Huffington Post. Cooper reminds us of the real purpose of the electoral college as envisioned by Alexander Hamilton:
Trump can still be stopped. The Founding Fathers foresaw just this catastrophe, and built a fail-safe into the Constitution. It’s called the Electoral College. Alexander Hamilton was explicit: this mechanism was designed to ensure that “the office of president will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.” In short, it was designed to prevent just this situation: the rise of an unqualified demagogue like Donald Trump.
Cooper suggests that we should all write to elected officials (both Democratic and Republican) in the states that voted for Trump to consider their electoral college options.

I think that most of the people reading this blog would agree, regardless of the party they support (or don't support), that we need to use whatever power (within the Constitution) we can to prevent this would-be autocrat from being inaugurated.

OK. I'm going back to my scales. I have been putting special focus on minor keys these days.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Gravitas: Ballad for Americans

I find it interesting to compare these two recordings:

Here's an obituary for Earl Robinson, the composer.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Reading Aloud

The latest adventure that Michael and I have had in our Four Seasons Book Club (we meet during all four seasons, in the living room, and generally after lunch) is reading the Odyssey out loud, swapping readers whenever there is a break in the text. Michael has read and taught the poem (in various translations) dozens of times, and this was my maiden voyage. What a tremendous experience it was to play the parts of both poet and audience in this re-enactment of such an important oral/aural tradition. It helped to really enjoy the work itself.

The act of reading out loud is quite different from the act of reading without speaking. Our eyes need to scan far ahead in order to make sense of the words we are reading. And when the lines I am reading are lines of poetry in translation, I find that I have to pay a different kind of attention to context, because the flow of the text is not necessarily predictable or natural. If the text is rhythmic and has a rhyme scheme, it is far easier to allow the words to trip off the tongue.

When we sightread music we are always preparing in our inner ears for what is ahead. Music set in regular rhythmic and harmonic patterns is far easier to sightread than music with irregular rhythmic patterns, and it is far easier to sightread a piece or passage when we can understand, by the experience of having played similar music, its harmonic logic.

I was thinking about this the other day while teaching a student who found herself tripping over otherwise straightforward notes in a passage. I took out a book and asked her to read a sentence or two. (She prefaced her reading with saying that she was horrible at reading aloud, but I found that she was perfectly good at it.) I asked her to observe the way her eyes and ears worked when she was reading aloud. Then we went back to the musical passage in question, and she found that she could expand her field of vision and inner ear the same way when reading music.

(For today's meeting of the reading club--after lunch, in the living room--we are going back to silent reading. And Balzac is on the menu.)

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Transcriptions for Viola and Piano of Russian Music Concert on November 12

It's that time of year again. For our November concert John David and I have raided the coffers of Russian music written for instruments other than the viola, and our program is made totally of transcriptions.

We're playing my hot-and-not-quite-off-the-press transcription of the Rachmaninoff Cello Sonata that will be published by the International Music Company in 2017, and my brand new transcriptions of three pieces from Reinhold Glière's Opus 35: the Chanson and Andante, written originally for oboe; and the Moment musical, written originally for cello. We are also playing two "Album Leaves" from his Opus 51, which is originally for cello, and the Romance, Opus 3, which is originally for violin.

I have put the transcribed viola parts for the Glière in the IMSLP, and you can have a look at them (and download them if you want) through the above links (you'll find them all under the "transcription" tabs. The piano parts are all unchanged.

For people in the neighborhood reading this, the concert will be at 4:00 on Saturday, November 12th at the Wesley Methodist Church on Fourth Street in Charleston, just south of the university on the west side of the street. There is ample parking, and admission is free.