Friday, December 31, 2021

New Year's Greeting for Two Trumpets

I wrote this piece to greet 2018, and Daniel Gianola-Norris just recorded it and posted it this evening to greet 2022. What a surprise! Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Spending the New Year with Fred Cowan (and friends)

The logistics involved with getting together with friends this New Year make reading memoirs that discuss social and musical antics of the past most appealing. Today I happened upon a book from 1913 by Frederic Hyman Cowan (Sir Frederic H. Cowan) called My Art and My Friends that I skimmed through today and plan to read tomorrow.

What, you ask, led me to this particular memoir? Well, I was searching through the IMSLP for pieces of music to celebrate the New Year, and came upon a set of piano pieces by Cowan from 1912 called The Months. The piece for January, it turns out, works nicely as a piece for string quartet (transposed and adjusted, of course).

You can listen to a computer-generated recording here.

(You can find the music here and (eventually) on this page of the IMSLP.)

Cowan's book is filled with stories about musicians he met during his travels through Europe (Brahms included) and Australia, and through his professional life as (mainly) a conductor. I'll share this gem from a performance of a Chopin Piano Concerto he conducted with Clara Schumann as the soloist.

Here's a peek at two more pages from the book. Some of the jokes in the menu I get, but there are some that go over my head. If anyone reading this would like to leave "answers" in the comments, I would be extremely happy. Welcome to my New Year's party with Sir Frederic! Remember that the link to the book (it's in the IMSLP) is above.

Sunday, December 26, 2021

A Great Day with Beethoven and Vivaldi

My musical day started with reading through the second part (the last six sonatas) of Vivaldi's La strava ganza on violin, and reading through some of his l'estro armonico. It seems to me that Vivaldi might have written La strava ganza for students as an enjoyable way to develop their bow arms. L'estro armonico is much more interesting (and much more difficult). It's not something just to read through. I definitely want to explore each piece carefully and thoughtfully.

Beethoven was on my piano menu, but I decided to skip the early sonatas I had been working on. After the first sonata they do get rather expansive, and since I can't play them at tempo, I tend to lose patience. I decided try playing the Pathetique Sonata. I know that the piece is quite economical: it has lots of bang for the buck, so to speak. I have analyzed the piece, and taught it to countless musical appreciation students over the years, but, until now, I have never been able to play the Pathetique well enough to understand what is going on in it pianistically.

Being able (finally) to observe how Beethoven writes for the piano by playing this piece feels like a gift. Playing it (for me, with my particular set of purposes) is like putting on Beethoven's shoes and going for a walk in his neighborhood.

Over the past several years I have come to understand that my relationship to music is extremely physical. Holding the music (not the sheet music, but the music itself), whether it is Vivaldi or Beethoven, in my hands, is a richer and richer experience. And the more ways I can enter into that experience, the more I learn about this multi-faceted thing we call music.

Whatever I learned from today's piano time with Beethoven seemed to bleed into today's violin time with Beethoven.

Friday, December 24, 2021

A little armchair musicology

Back in my flute playing days I used to enjoy playing Vivaldi's Il Pastor Fido. My father once remarked that one movement (the final movement of the sixth Sonata, and the one I liked best) sounded just like the first movement of Vivaldi's G minor Violin Concerto, which I now know as RV 316a. Neither of us knew that Johann Sebastian Bach also used it as movement of a concerto for solo harpsichord.

When I went to the IMSLP to search for Il Pastor Fido, I was surprised to be redirected to an entry for Nicolas Chedéville, with the following statement in the notes:
Nicolas Chédeville made a secret agreement in 1737 with Jean-Noël Marchand to publish a collection of his own compositions as Vivaldi's. Chédeville supplied the money and received the profits, all of which was attested to in a notarial act by Marchand in 1749. Long attributed to Vivaldi, the set of sonatas are actually the work of Chédeville.
But it looks like, according to the IMSLP dates, Bach wrote his G minor harpsichord movement in 1713, and Vivaldi's transcription of it as the first movement of a concerto for violin and strings was published in 1716.

Playing through the first movement of BWV 975 feels like a transcription, and really sounds like Vivaldi (at his very best). The other movements sound and feel more like Bach "speaking" Italian to me. I like to imagine that somehow a pre-publication copy of this Concerto movement got into Bach's hands before 1713. Who knows?

Look at the Bach:
Look at the Vivaldi:
Look at the Chédeville:
Listen to the Bach: Listen to the Vivaldi: Listen to the Chédeville:

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

One more transcription of Florence Price's Adoration

Sheronda Shorter, the director of the Kentuckiana Viola Choir asked me to make a multi-viola transcription of Florence Price's "Adoration." I thought I would share it here for other multi-viola ensembles to play. You can find a PDF of the score and parts here as well as on this page of the IMSLP.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

New Year's Greeting for 2022

I'm so eager for 2021 to be over that I'm a bit early with my (almost) annual New Year's Greeting. You can find the music on this page of the IMSLP in versions for clarinet and viola, two violas, and two violins.

Here's a transcription I made for harpsichord or piano:


A great 2021 project that has come to fruition is a free online archive of new editions of Fanny Hensel's music. You can find the store portal to the whole collection here. The larger portion of the music can be downloaded for free. The collection is really a labor of love, though I think it also serves as an excuse to make a few good puns.

In addition to the "Fanny Pack," they are selling simplified versions of Hensel's very difficult "Das Jahr," which should liven up the days of piano students everywhere during the coming year. Or, rather, Jahr.

Friday, December 17, 2021

Beethoven Piano Sonata No. 1, Mendelssohn Nocturne

Listen to the first eight measures of the Beethoven:

And now listen to the first eight measures of the Mendelssohn (played on the piano):

Monday, December 13, 2021

Deborah Drattell

I remember watching a live broadcast of Deborah Drattell's "Festival of Regrets" on the television in 1999, and being amazed. I had hoped to hear more of her music, but, living so much of my new-musical life through recordings at that time, it wasn't possible. 

There is very little of her music on line, and professionally she has turned in the direction of what women might wear to the opera rather than what they might listen to there. Her work as a belt and brooch maker is stunning. If I were the type of person to wear jewelry (and if I had places to wear it and riches to buy it with), I would buy it. I applaud her choice to use her expression in ways, particularly ways that can be profitable enough to make a living. But that doesn't mean that her music is no less spectacular that her work as a belt and brooch designer. Just listen to this movement from Lilith.

You can find her musical biography on a page in Wikipedia, and you can see the spoils of her second life here. I doubt Deborah Drattell has any regrets.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

. . . and just like that

The holiday gigging season in pre-pandemic times (if I group pre-pandemic years together, as one does these days) involved pretty constant activity. Just like that my two seasonal orchestra concerts are over, and without any pressing projects on the horizon, I have been watching more television than usual.

The two new programs I am faithfully watching, Curb Your Enthusiasm and And Just Like That were made to air in what everyone thought would be a post-pandemic world. The references to Covid and "the lockdown" in both are early, and (I'm not giving anything away) then situations come up that allow for the "sweet smell of forget" (I think I just coined a phrase) to mix with the general suspension of disbelief that turns on when we turn the television on.

I'm only two episodes into Just Like That, which I am watching without Michael, and in order to give myself the illusion of having company, I have looked at posts here and there (mostly there, since this is the blogosphere).

What I have noticed is that people seem to want a "remake" of Sex and the City, with the characters exactly the way they were twenty years ago. It seems to me that (young) critics of the show (just like that everyone's a critic) are not terribly interested in the often serious things that women in their mid 50s tend to have to face.

Men in their fifties and sixties are often thought of as being in their prime. Those with creative ability have had time and often the institutional support (perhaps that world should have an uppercase I, because there are lowercase-i institutions like those in academia who only support a selected slice of their employees) to accomplish remarkable things, and even be recognized for doing so. Those of us who are living life as older middle-age women, who are also in the intellectual and artistic prime of life, are still judged (mostly) by how we appear and how we treat others, rather than the work we have done.

But I digress.

If you are looking for light 1990s comedy about attractive young women navigating through friendships, shoes, and relationships in a New York that I barely recognize and could never afford to live in, watch re-runs of Sex in the City. If you want to watch a truly brilliant show about a New York I recognize from the late 1970s, watch The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd on YouTube.

But if you happen to be watching And Just Like That, I would be very interested in your reactions to the way big issues are handled (you could replace that lowercase b with an uppercase one if you like). I have much more empathy for the main characters in their 50s than I had for them when they were in their 30s. And I like what promise to be interesting new characters.

The comments here are always open.

Wednesday, December 08, 2021

Früling vs. Feder

. . . Speaking of Beethoven's use of the Sforzando, I'm now thinking of the "Spring" Sonata in a totally new way. I'm thinking of it as being organized as a series of musically driven springs that build up and release tension horizontally by way of the sforzando.

This is a nice time to share Leonard Rose's discussion of the anatomy of the cello (or any string instrument) and the body's playing mechanism as a series of springs. It works particularly well for me when thinking about Beethoven and his F major Violin Sonata, Opus 24.

[The video is set to play at the point when he talks about springs.]

And then there's always this:

Tuesday, December 07, 2021


I always thought of sforzando as an accent reinforced by a sudden loud dynamic. And every definition I can find in the internets seems to agree with that assumption. But lately (as in just the other day) I have started to think of the marking as having more to do with phrasing and phrase direction than dynamics or even accent.

I have been observing the behavior of the sforzando in Beethoven violin sonatas lately, and in Beethoven (where he indicates them as "sf" without the "z") they really seem to function as a kind of a springboard to help organize the music horizontally into phrases.

Here are a couple of indications of how they behave in their habitat (Beethoven Violin Sonata Opus 23):

Sunday, December 05, 2021

Talking about Eurydice

Unfortunately I learned about the MET broadcast of this opera only today, but I was very happy to find this discussion that includes some really wonderful excerpts. I look forward to when I can see and hear the whole opera.

If you only have a little time, scroll about 54 minutes in, and listen to the duet that the character of Orpheus sings with his double (another Orpheus).

Friday, December 03, 2021


I used to struggle with reminding students about the placement of the first finger. "Low first finger" takes so much time to say, and for beginning students who are not sure about note names, saying "F natural" or "B flat" doesn't always register quickly enough to keep a musical line going.

But this little device I thought up a while ago and am sharing here for the first time works like a charm.

It is also very easy to write an "M" or a "Y" on a student's music to serve as a reminder. The one-syllable nature of these letters also makes it possible to provide an efficient verbal reminder while someone is playing. With one student I use a catchphrase: "Engage the dolphin, (i.e. use your intelligence) and apply the Y."

This opens the door, of course, to a discussion of the "why" of music, or the "why' of anything concerning the content of anything in a given piece of music, but that is the subject of another blog post.

Thursday, December 02, 2021

Mozart's Piano Sonata, K 545

In 1788, around the time he was writing his 39th Symphony, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote the first two movements of his 15th Piano Sonata, and all of his 16th Piano Sonata. He completed the C major Sonata on June 28, 1788, and indicated in his thematic catalog that it was a piece for beginners.

I first encountered the piece when I was ten or eleven, playing violin in an orchestra (the "All City" orchestra) in Newton, Massachusetts. One of the pieces on the program that we played at the Newton Free Library was the middle movement of K545 in a hand-written arrangement for piano and string orchestra. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard.

Sometime earlier in 2021 I was asked to arrange the first movement of this piece for string trio to play for a wedding, and was then informed that the people getting married had changed their mind (not about getting married, but about having this piece played). By that time I had put in some significant work on the transcription, and had fallen in love (once again) with the piece, so I decided to expand my arrangement and make it for string orchestra or string quintet, and include all the movements. I was amazed at how beautifully it transcribed (it kind of transcribed itself--I just put the notes in the places they needed to go). The International Music Company will be publishing it sometime in the next year.

I have been spending a lot of time at the piano lately, and have been making my way through the Mozart Sonatas trying to think a little bit like a pianist rather than like a tourist-composer.

I was not surprised to witness the growing pianistic complexity in the progression from one sonata to the next, but I was surprised that when I started practicing K545, I was able to think in a very clear way about what my hands and fingers were doing (or should be doing). It was almost as if Mozart were giving me a lesson in piano playing. I don't know if his purpose was to use the smallest number of notes possible to get the maximum amount of musical substance, but he certainly succeeded. Indeed, aside from a handful of triads and a few repeated eighth-note thirds, the piece spends much of its time as a duet for two voices.

And its brevity is remarkable.

Could Mozart have written it as an exercise in a kind of minimalism--a "chaser" after the Sturm und Drang of the C minor Sonata, K457? Could his attempt at simplicity in the 15th Sonata (in F major) written six months earlier in January of 1788, not have been pianistically or formally pared-down enough to serve his purpose? 

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Happy Hanukkah 2021

The music is "Hanukkah Latkes" for strings. The score and parts are on this page of the IMSLP. I also made a new two-voice vocal arrangement (the song is really too much of a tongue-twister to sing with just one person) to replace the single voice and piano version that I made in 2009.

To paraphrase one of our granddaughters, when altering a recipe for green bean casserole, I'm the composer, and I can do what I want.

While the updated vocal score is waiting in line at the IMSLP, you can find a PDF of the new version of the song here.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Bruce Lazarus Threnodies and Anthems

Bruce Lazarus lost his parents to AIDS in 1993 and 1994. He wrote this memorial piece in 1995, and this year he made a video with images (still and moving) that is really remarkable.

Busking, or as we called it, "playing on the street"

I played on the street for years before I even knew of the existence of the word "busking." It has been a while since I have busked (maybe forty years), but I can still fully appreciate this study done this year by Samuel Stäbler of the Netherlands and Kim Katharina Mierisch of the UK.

I started playing on the street in New York in 1977 (mostly flute duets with fellow Juilliard students). Our best spot was in Greenwich Village in front of a bookstore, where we were given permission to play. When we were no longer allowed to play in front of the bookstore, we moved to a spot in front of a bakery. Our best day was Sunday, and the best time of day was the afternoon. The music was always classical, and we were almost children (I used to play a lot with the equally seventeen-year-old Jeff Khaner). After playing for about two hours, we made about $25 each, mostly in quarters. I would use the money to buy groceries.

Other Juilliard students tried their hands at playing on the street. I remember seeing Nigel Kennedy and Thomas Demenga on Fifth Avenue one cloudy day, playing in an alcove in front of Tiffany's in the late afternoon. Nobody stopped to listen. They didn't do so well on the street, but both have done extremely well in professional musical life.

It was a more innocent time. As long as we had permission from store owners, we didn't need any kind of permit. Nobody thought about amplification, nobody thought about videos (they weren't "invented" yet), and we could only measure our success in the volume and value of the coins people threw into our cases." People took pictures, though. I'm sure that images of me playing flute and recorder are on many an ektachrome slide, taken by tourists on vacation, and having been loaded onto carousel players long ago, now sit in basements and attics, only to be unearthed by grandchildren and great grandchildren, who will wonder if they are worth saving.

The only remnant of that time I have is this pencil drawing done in Graz, Austria.
I wrote a post in 2006 about my street-playing (or busking) experiences, which you can read here.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Anne Bronte on the resilience of the human heart

In the voice of Mr. Weston from Agnes Grey:
“The human heart is like india-rubber, a little swells it, but a great deal will not burst it. If ‘little more than nothing,’ will disturb it, ‘little less than all things will suffice' to break it. As in the outer members of our frame, there is a vital power inherent in itself, that strengthens it against external violence. Every blow that shakes it will serve to harden it against a future stroke; as constant labour thickens the skin of the hand, and strengthens its muscles instead of wasting them away: so that a day of arduous toil that might excoriate a lady’s palm, would make no sensible impression on that of a hardy ploughman.”

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Woodwind music in the IMSLP and Viola music in the IMSLP

I have started taking stock of the music that I keep in the IMSLP, and made a couple of lists, which I am sharing here. You can find links to all the viola music here, though this link includes published music as well, and for the Woodwind music through the main Thematic Catalog page, and use the sidebar links for the various instruments.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

From Christopher Simpson's The Division Viol

I welcome possible explanations from anyone who understands something about astrology. These pages come from Simpson's 1655 treatise on making divisions on a ground.

Well . . . I did a little search, and found that I posted this very image back in October 2012 in a post about a division project I was involved in coordinated by Daniel Wolf and a bunch of other composers in the blogosphere.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Price Adoration on Trumpet

One of the perks of making arrangements available in the IMSLP is that great musicians like Raquel Samayoa find them easily, adapt them to sound best on their instrument, play them for pleasure, and record them for the pleasure of others.

Saturday, November 13, 2021

A Cellist's Garden of Verses as performed by Sam's Cello Studio in Urbana

My friend Sam Araya helped his students put lovely readings of Robert Louis Stevenson's poems and beautiful artwork by young artists together with thoughtful, expressive, and heartfelt performances of these pieces by six of his students. You can also listen via YouTube.

Friday, November 12, 2021

Mozart K 310

The Mozart A minor Piano Sonata, K 310 is a wonder. I have loved listening to it on recordings, particularly Dinu Lipatti's 1950 recording, which I first "met" when I was twenty, and have listened to hundreds of times. It is the last piece in the first volume of the Henle edition. A crown on top of a case of jewels.

Instead of reading through it and admiring it from a purely aspirational state (wouldn't it be nice to be able to play this like a pianist would), I find myself practicing it. Through practicing it I find myself learning about how to play the piano. For me that means consciously connecting with all my fingers, not just the strong ones, and it also means paying attention to fingering. The notes don't play themselves, after all.

Paying attention in this way means moving beyond my usual game of "blind man's bluff," and onto a new "game" of seeing if I can play a given phrase comfortably all the way through, and trying to connect my two hands together through the piano.

I'm interested to see if I can replicate what I accomplished this morning later today.

Tuesday, November 09, 2021


If you keep walking back from good luck, he thought, you'll come to bad luck.
This paragraph from Gary Paulsen's Hatchet threw me for a loop (or, maybe, took me aback).

I tend to think about luck favoring the prepared mind, or being simply a matter of circumstance, but never have I thought of an instance of good luck being able to trace itself back directly to an instance of bad luck.

I wonder if it works with success as well? Instances of success are almost always preceded by instances of failure, and sometimes you only need one instance of success to make a profound difference in your life, as in conceiving a child.

There are also instances of good luck that are not easily traceable to instances of bad luck like happening upon an old friend in an unlikely place, coming upon a particular combination of notes and rhythms that work in a piece, happening to turn on the radio or television at the right time to see or hear something, or finding an thought-provoking passage in a book to write a blogpost about.

Sunday, November 07, 2021


I'm so happy to encounter Frances Wilson (who I know as the cross-eyed pianist) elsewhere in these internets! Her post about autonomy really resonates with me today.

Friday, November 05, 2021

Mozart on the Piano

A week or two ago I opened my neglected two-volume set of Mozart Piano Sonatas, and now I find that I have fallen into a new habit. Sure, we all know that Mozart was a great composer, but in some way it feels that when I am playing his piano music I am able to understand more about why he was a great composer.

I have absolutely no desire to play this music for anyone except myself, and I take all of the deviations from expectations dictated through what we have come to call the Viennese classical style as special gifts given to people who accept them as such.

Through my daily meetings with Mozart's musical mind I have come to learn more about music than I thought I did, particularly because playing the piano is and has always been a struggle for me. I never had the early "training" that allows the hands to, as one of my young violin students who also plays piano says, "know what they are doing," though the time I spent learning to play scales with both hands together in parallel motion when was in piano class at Juilliard (with Frances Goldstein) has stuck with me over the decades. Well, some of the scales.

Playing piano will always be a matter of translation for me, and I know that it will never feel like a musical mother tongue. I have also come to understand that it doesn't matter as long as I can derive personal pleasure out of playing, and can continue to grow as a musician.

But I have to confess. I sometimes have a physical urge to play. I often wake up in the morning with Mozart piano music in my head, and the deep desire to play and shape it with my hands. Playing the piano every day (and playing Mozart every day) seems to fill in gaps in my psyche and my spirit.

What a gift Mozart gave to us in his piano music.

UPDATE: While looking for Mozart posts and piano posts to tag on this blog, I came across this. If it's November it must be Mozart indeed!

Tuesday, November 02, 2021

All politics is no longer local

Tip O'Neill is known for having said, back in the later part of the twentieth century, "All politics is local." In the twenty-first century it now looks like all politics is now national.

If it's November, it's time to get out the Troika

And violists can have productive fun playing my transcription for three violas of "November" from Tchaikovsky's "The Seasons."

You can listen to a computer-generated recording here. I hope to have one made by three humans at some point in the future.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Shifting Autumn Colors

"Dancing on the Fingerboard" has four brief autumn-themed violin or viola pieces for learning and practicing shifting from the first position to the third position. The first is in the major mode, is played with separate bows, and is mezzo-forte throughout. I call it "Shifting Colors of Autumn: Green. The second piece has the same pitches and rhythms as the first, but it has dynamics and bowings. It is called "Shifting Colors of Autumn: Yellow.

The third piece, "Shifting Colors of Autumn: Orange," is in the minor mode, uses separate bows, and maintains the same dynamic level throughout. The fourth piece, "Shifting Colors of Autumn: Red," marked at a slower tempo than the first three, has the same pitches as "Orange," but it has dynamic markings and bowings.

While Michael and I went walking in the woods today (Fox Ridge and Lake Charleston), I took some video of the yellow leaves to pair with "Shifting Colors of Autumn: Yellow." Yesterday I took some video of red trees for "Shifting Colors of Autumn: Red."

Now I have two videos to share.

Saturday, October 30, 2021

Happy Halloween from Georges Méliès et moi

Nothing says "Happy Halloween" quite like Georges Méliès's 1896 film "The Haunted Castle." I am so pleased that "High Shape-shifting Ghosts" from my latest solo viola opus, "Dancing on the Fingerboard," fits an excerpt from it rather well.

Thursday, October 28, 2021

A photograph to go with my updated profile

This is an accidental photo that happened yesterday while I was trying to make a video recording (while I was practicing). I had no idea that when I pressed the wrong button my ipad was on the "portrait" setting. The photograph captures my Becker viola in all of its orange glory (something that I have come to love over time).

The picture to the right is a photograph of a collage that I made around thirty years ago, when I was trying to emulate Robert Motherwell. I think that the two images work together in a nice dance.

Robyn Sarah's music, late and soon

It is a luxury to read a memoir about music written by an excellent writer who happens to have spent the greater part of her life as a musician. There are musicians who can write well, but they often don't have the discipline (gained from experience) to write as clearly, cleanly, and lyrically as they would like to. That takes an additional lifetime of work, one that Robyn Sarah has managed to sandwich between her lives as a student musician and as an adult returning to serious study.

Robyn Sarah is a Canadian writer. She has won multiple awards for her poetry, has published collections of essays about poetry, published collections of short stories, and has served as a university professor and as an editor.

Sarah began her musical life in Montreal with piano lessons, and from the age of eleven to seventeen she had the great good fortune of studying with Philip Cohen, a teacher who intuitively understood Robyn's musical needs as well as her particuar method of thinking and learning. She briefly returned to lessons with Phil in early adulthood, but for logistical reasons didn't continue.

The memoir bounces back and forth in time, so I will freely do the same when writing about it (though with far less elegance).

Concurrent with her piano studies, Robyn begins playing clarinet in her school band. Energized by the musical life she finds playing with others, she becomes a good enough player to attend the Conservatory in Montreal, where she finds an excellent teacher, and plays well enough to be principal clarinetist in the orchestra. She falls deeply in love with music, but studies philosophy at the University. She also decides against a musical career path, and pursues a career as a writer.

Sarah only spends a few paragraphs in the memoir writing about her thirty-five-year life away from music. Her path back to music is unusually abrupt: she is asked to play clarinet at an event she is attending as a poet, and has very little time to get in any kind of playing shape. It is this event that gives her the idea to return to serious piano study, with the intention of preparing a recital for her sixtieth birthday, and writing about the proceess. A few years pass, and then she calls up her old teacher.

I love the first sentences of the memoir:
During one of her lessons as a returning student, Phil Cohen matter-of-factly makes a comment about synesthesia that resonates with Robyn. Another comment about learning backwards makes her realize that backwards learning has played a great part in her life as a writer as well as her life as a musician.

After reading her descriptions of sensory experiences, I can relate to the "kind" of synesthesia her teacher noticed. My multi-sensory experiences do not correspond to the "normal" definitions of synesthesia. I certainly appreciate colors, but I do not equate them with numbers, letters, or pitches. My pitch memory, like Robyn's, is poor and fleeting, but, since returning to string playing in my thirties, and practicing deliberately for thirty years, I have built up a true kinetic association with what I hear, and what I want to hear. I find that I can physically realize the motion involved in an upcoming phrase of music while I am playing material that comes a few notes (or even measures) earlier. It is like being in two places at once: experiencing where I am, and knowing exactly where I am going.

I have always taught my students that musicians develop eyes that hear and ears that see, but I believe sensory swapping is far more complicated that that. There is probably an inborn component to color and number, letter, or pitch synesthesia, but I have found that other kinds of sensory swapping can be developed. Mine involves the senses of touch (in the present and the future), an inner sense of smell and even one of taste or flavor. When writing musical phrases I experience a sort of physicality of the mind, and it is natural for me to "hear" what it feels like to play a phrase on a given instrument. I think that this is the kind of sense integration that Phil Cohen was talking about when he mentioned synesthesia. I also think that the reason he taught Robyn Sarah the way he did is that he knew that she could intellectually and physically understand what he was teaching her.

The center (the core, the heart) of the memoir is the teaching personality of the sometimes enigmatic and always imaginative Phil Cohen. There are other teachers mentioned in the memoir. Some of them are formal teachers (including former students of Phil), some are friends who offer wisdom, and some have excellent pianos that she plays on (her childhood upright piano is the only instrument she owns). It is what Phil has to say about music and musical life that really resonates with me as both a practicing musician and as a teacher.

The title of the memoir might actually be a reflection on a "refrain" that Phil always comes back to.
Try to play in such a way as to put the future always in your hands.

The future creates the present. The future causes the present. Know where you're going--know where the music is going. Music is movement.

Robyn Sarah's young adventures with music present a 1960s Montreal rich with the latest in youth culture, where she and her circle of intellectual and musical friends were interested in harpsichord kits (she helped build a harpsichord), classical guitar, listening to the latest new discoveries in old music, and enjoying the best in 1960s pop music. With her return to piano study, we also get to see a twenty-first-century Montreal, where Robyn finds restaurants and other venues (including an adult care facility) with nice pianos to practice on. She spends a lot of her time going from one piano venue to the next, and gaining performance experience in exchange for dinner.

I wonder how many of the restaurant diners she played for might have read her work, and had no idea who it was playing Chopin for them.

We also get to spend two weeks with Robyn at an intensive piano camp, where she gets a taste of just how difficult is to maintain a love of music while, even though it is supposed to be a non-competitive experience, competing with pianists young enough to be her grandchildren.

I love this book because I am a discerning reader, a practicing musician, and a teacher. I also love it because I approach the creative work of writing music much like the way Robyn Sarah approaches her creative work as a poet. I recommend this book to anyone who participates in the "dance" of music as a student (particularly as an adult student), as a teacher, as an listener, or as a practicioner, professional or otherwise, who no longer has the luxury of studying with a teacher. And I would also recommend it to anyone who appreciates excellent writing, and to anyone interested in the mystery of the creative process. It is available from Biblioasis, amazon, and other places you buy books.

UPDATE: The book is now available as an audiobook (read by Robyn Sarah), and is available through this link.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021


Back in the days when waterways were the means of travel for commerce, power went to those who controlled the coastlines. An Isthmus was a gateway from one large body of water to another, and that is why those landforms were the sites of the greatest powerful cities and empires of the ancient world. Then we (humans) added roads, which, in Europe, all led to Rome.

We had bridges and aqueducts, boats that delivered goods (and people, sometimes as property, in the case of slaves) across oceans. People bought and sold shares in the companies that did this (including Handel). Then we had railroads, which made huge amounts of money for the people that owned them and owned shares in the companies, car companies and travel by highway moved the monopoly of train travel elsewhere. The we had radio broadcasting, newspaper publishing, and television broadcasting as the center of power.

And with Facebook we have found our way to a “place” where the people who have the most power are the people who have managed to control the way people, who would normally be able to communicate just fine without a tool that makes communication almost effortless, dependent on the kind of communication that Facebook offers. 

It has made communication through its platforms the ONLY way that some people communicate with their neighbors about events in their own communities because the platform is so easy to use. People who don’t participate in Facebook often don’t know what is going on in their own community because the local press has dwindled to almost nothing. And in the case of my community and communities that are like mine in Illinois, newspapers are not even locally owned, and do not report much (if anything) about what is happening in a town if it doesn’t have something to do with commerce.

So, in a way, Facebook has, by controlling the flow of "culture," managed to make natural kinds of culture (the local kind) hard to participate in. And it can render invisible things and events that are not shiny, glowing, convenient, amusing, and instant. If it disappears we (as human beings) will find other ways of communicating. Maybe after the pandemic we will find more joy in interacting socially in ways that don’t involve a multi-billion-dollar company making money from our relationships.

I sure hope so.

Monday, October 25, 2021

Danny Kaye Conducts Rossini

My mother always talked about what a good conductor Danny Kaye was, and even though he couldn't read music (notice he is not conducting from score), he understood the language of music, particularly the physical language of music, extremely well. Usually when orchestras have celebrity guest conductors they keep their eyes on the music or the concertmaster. With Danny Kaye they clearly can't keep their eyes off the conductor.

Because I can, I'm indulging in one more musical Danny Kaye video:

and one more (non-music-related classic), just in case you haven't seen it. It really like a patter song without a melody.

One more conducting video, just because . . .

Friday, October 22, 2021

Augustin Hadelich and Orion Weiss Concert from the Library of Congress October 21, 2021

I enjoyed listening to this program from yesterday immensely. I hope you will too.

Claude Debussy: Sonata in G minor for violin and piano, L.140

Isaac Albéniz: El Puerto, from Book 1 of Iberia, for solo piano

Francisco Tárrega/Ruggiero Ricci: Recuerdos de la Alhambra for solo violin

Pablo de Sarasate: Spanish Dances, op. 22/1: Romanza Andaluza

Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata no. 9 in A major for piano and violin, op. 47, “Kreutzer”

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Being Invisible (with links)

I was planning to write a blog post called "The Cloak of Invisibility," but I realized that I wrote a post with a similar name in 2016! I was going to talk about the strange and secret joy of being invisible at a performance where nobody in the audience has any idea who wrote the music they are listening to, but I did that in 2007. And I even used the idea of invisibility in a piece, and wrote a post two years ago about a performance.

So what has changed in 2021? My previous feelings about invisibility were always fraught with sadness. Now I am starting to see that it is something that I may actually seek out through the work I do. Now I see that I shy away from exposing myself too much, and that I feel a sense of comfort and even protection in the barriers that have surrounded me since childhood. (In a "normal" family it would be called "middle child syndrome," but I don't really have a window into a family with more than two children besides my own family of origin.)

I think that there is a point in adulthood when we can cast a bright light on the habits of personality that we devloped in childhood, and accept them for the parts that are self-sustaining, instead of rejecting them as "things" we need to change in order to find happiness and balance as adults. We each have our own coping mechanisms, and we each have our own timeframe for putting childish things behind us, and moving on.

But perhaps some of the ways of coping that we discovered in childhood are good personal tools for finding our own paths to happiness. Escaping circumstances (current in childhood as well as current in adulthood) through literature, art, drama, dance, and music, are a few that come to mind. And those mechanisms, in my case, don't necessarily correspond to being "seen." But they do have a way of helping me see myself, and accept who I happen to be.

I feel, in a way, that I am more comfortable when I am not so visible. When playing music I am happy to let what is in the music out, and to serve as a vehicle for that. I want to improve my sound, intonation, and phrasing to do just that. What more is there, anyway?

I do feel happy when people express thanks for things that I share with them musically, but what makes me actually happy is the idea that people who have had trouble with shifting, odd keys, and getting their students to practice scales, are able to use my work to break down their own technical and musical barriers. What makes me actually happy is that people can find the music I write and the arrangements I make useful pathways for their own expression and connections with other musicians and people who enjoy listening.

And I'm grateful to have a nice invisible way to share my thoughts about music on this blog, and am grateful to make invisible connections to other musicians in faraway places.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Dancing on the Fingerboard

I think that shifting from position to position on the violin and the viola should be a pleasure, and think that practicing in order to teach the arm and hand to shift should be an expressive activity rather than a mechanical one.

After years of teaching students to shift by using tried and true methods and materials from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (which tend to bore them), I decided to try my hand writing at a set of twenty-first-century lighthearted pieces with whimsical titles that employ guiding fingers in their melodic material.

Initially I imagined a small set of short pieces to introduce the shift from first to third position, but my project grew into two sets of twenty pieces (one for violin and one for viola) that cover the first six positions and dip a toe into the seventh position.

I thought of having it published, but I am too impatient to wait. Plus, I really wanted to use this cover image, which I cobbled together from two very old books (one about folk dancing, and one about violin making), to celebrate the dance-like joy of moving the fingers of the left hand from place to place on the fingerboard.

I often tell my students that the four fingers of the left hand are like four dancing feet. Publishers like to use the work of their own artists, which I understand completely, but priorities are priorities.

So into the IMSLP it has gone for other violinists and violists to use for practicing and teaching. I did my best to make the titles and tempo markings witty, so I hope that help keep practicing fun.

You can find both the violin and the viola music on this page of the IMSLP.

Thursday, October 07, 2021

Representation from "Are Women People?"

Here's another contribution to what I hope will become a body of work by various composers (see this challenge to fellow composers). I was compelled to set this song for male voice and piano, and made versions of it for baritone and for tenor which is available on this page of the IMSLP.

Here's the first page of the song in the baritone key:

Here's a link to a computer-generated audio file, and here is the text as published in 1915.
Go ahead and sing along!

Wednesday, October 06, 2021

An angle on shifting

I have a ten-year-old violin student who is ready to move beyond first position. I had her slide up the fingerboard, just for fun during the interval between last week's lesson and yesterday's lesson, and during the week I wrote a set of little pieces to teach her to shift using the first finger as a guiding finger.

Needless to say, I was very excited about yesterday's lesson.

I showed her how the angle of the elbow gets narrower when we shift to third position. She was very excited about this because she had JUST LEARNED IN SCHOOL that day about angles: acute, right, and obtuse (though we both needed to search for the word "obtuse"). And now we have vocabulary.

If the shift needs to be a little higher, the angle of the elbow needs to be more acute, and if the shift is too high, the angle of the elbow needs to be more obtuse. After a casual reminder that the "elbow bone" is connected to the "ear bone" and that the thumb and the first finger move as a team, this student was confidently shifting in fifteen minutes. We read through the fifty-measure piece I wrote for her, identified the new pitches, and incorporated some third position in the piece she is playing.

She happened to mention that shifting was easier than trying to do vibrato, but since vibrato is easier to learn in third position than it is in first position, we started learning vibrato yesterday too.

I'm at work now on a whole series of pieces to help with shifting, which I will make available to others in some way. I presented the idea to Mel Bay (they have such excellent distribution), but if they aren't interested I will make the set available in the IMSLP.

Monday, October 04, 2021

Are Women People? A Book of Rhymes for Suffrage Times

I learned about Alice Duer Miller's book from a conversation on an episode of the "Clear and Vivid" podcast between Alan Alda, Lynn Sherr and Ellen Goodman called "She Votes!" I knew immediately that these light verses should be turned into songs right away.

You can find podcast episode here, and the 1915 book they talk about here.

I am in the process of setting a few of the poems for voice and harp (or piano), and have shared the first of my set in the IMSLP. I'm hoping for a real performance in the not-too-distant future, but for now you can listen to a computer-generated one here.

It is my hope that other composers will set some of the verses in this book (that link goes to the public domain Gutenberg text), and will also make their songs available in the IMSLP. Then we might have a whole collection.

Please share this post with composers you think might be interested. My setting is for harp because I happened to talk about the idea first with a harpist, but I'm hoping for a grand array of vocal and instrumental settings.

[October 1, 2021]

You can find my setting of "Evolution" on this page of the IMSLP

I'm happy to report that I'm not the first composer to be moved musically by this set. Lori Laitman set a few of these poems, and used the title of Alice Duer Miller's book as the title of her recently released CD.

I'm hoping to be able to add other composers to this list. You (and I) can find out more about Alice Duer Miller and her work here.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Bows Down

Most violinists and violists of normal adult size can balance their bows in their laps when asked to do so, but my short legs make it very difficult for me. In the case of a tall chair and a whole movement, like the Scherzo of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony, it is impossible.

I don't feel comfortable wearing heels and carrying an instrument onto a stage, so the other day I developed a useful no-sew (and no shoe) solution. The components:
Two old black socks with the feet cut off
Two black hair ties
A few wine bottle corks (for heft)
I put the sock parts inside one another and cuffed them on either side. Then I inserted the corks, and bound the cuffed ends together with the hair ties. This is what the finished (and unnamed) tool looks like:
And here is how it works:

It only takes up a little room in my case:

Sunday, September 26, 2021

You Never Know

After an orchestra rehearsal yesterday morning, I found myself in a lengthy parking-garage conversation about music with a young man who had recently decided to augment his musical life as a freelancer and teacher by doing music-related things involving technology.

I really enjoy being able to talk with younger musicians (people younger than my own kids, even), and find myself deeply impressed at how capable, enthusiastic, and dedicated so many of them are to the this activity that we pass, torch-like, from one generation to the next. When we get the opportunity to make music together, the result is often, as in the concert last night, a big emotional and artistic bonfire, fueled by a lot of attention and concentration. It seems that as an orchestral musician, age really doesn't matter. And at sixty-two I still have a lot to talk about with people thirty or forty years younger than I am. I also learn a great deal from sitting with truly capable young stand partners, some, in the case of this concert, with remarkable bow arms.

At any rate, I mentioned at some point that I wrote music. My new friend asked me what my last name was, wondering if he had ever heard of me. I told him that he probably hadn't, but when I mentioned my name there was a moment of recognition. He reached in his bag, took out a notebook of orchestra music that he was helping a student with, and produced the bass part of "High Speed Rail," a piece I wrote about ten years ago.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

String Theory, the Mind of God, and Phrasing

While listening to a podcast conversation today between Michio Kaku and Alan Alda, I got an abstract glimpse of what string theory is, how string theory works, and how string theory relates to music. At any rate, I want to share the link here, just in case it is an interesting subject for anyone who reads this blog, and so I can be sure to know where it is in the universe of the internet when I want to listen again.

Here it is.

I started getting little awareness "pings" that relate to the way musical phrases are curved like physical space is curved, and how what I might have to rethink what I sometimes think of as "gravity" in phrases. And I can't stop thinking about Johann Sebastian Bach's curved beams.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Back in the Orchestral Viola Saddle

I played a family-friendly pops concert yesterday with the Champaign Urbana Symphony. It was a Covid-safe space with everybody in the orchestra vaccinated and with all the string players and the audience members masked.

In rehearsal we had to explore logistics, like coordinating bell covers along with trumpet muting and wind instrument changes, but otherwise it felt like a normal and well-organized couple of rehearsals.

It has been a long five hundred some-odd days (some odder than others), and I found that playing as a masked ensemble for a masked audience was perfectly comfortable.

Nobody could see the smiles coming from everyone's mouths, but we could feel them.

It was so inspiring to be sitting in the middle of excellent orchestration--hearing and feeling the brass players behind me, the winds, to the right, and the excellent strings all around.

I was concerned in the middle of the first piece, a Sound of Music medley, that I was going to start crying and get my mask all wet. I know that I wasn't alone.

And when it came time to go to sleep after such a stimulating day, I had one piece after another going through my head, just like in the old days. And I am still having spots that pop up here and there.

The next time I get to play, with another orchestra, is only two weeks away. And I get to play Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony for the first time as a violist, so I have two weeks to practice. I was so excited to find all the musical material that the violas get to play.

I wouldn't say that this aspect of life is "back to normal." I would say that I am experiencing orchestral musical life with a new sense of joy and purpose.

Thursday, September 09, 2021

Beethoven's Kol Nidre

This is beautifully described in a 1971 letter to the editor of the New York Times
Joseph Roddy's piece on the Guarneri Quartet (“The New ‘In’ Group Is the Guarneri,” March 7), refers to the adagio of Beethoven's Quartet in C minor, Opus 131. Michael Tree, the group's violist, in response to some friendly joking about his playing “Jewish” in this movement, is quoted as saying, “Look, this is the Jewish movement. Beethoven took this from a synagogue... It is very well documented.” Since neither Mr. Tree nor Mr. Roddy indicated what this documentation is, may I point out that what one hears in the opening bars of the adagio is the 1,300‐year‐old “Kol Nidre” melody which is chanted in all or most synagogues on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) Leo Tolstoy, I might add, once described the “Kol Nidre,” which he had heard in a Russian synagogue, as the “saddest, yet most uplifting” of all the melodies he had ever encountered, ethoing, as it does, “the story of the great martyrdom of a grief‐stricken nation” According to Abraham Idelson in his book, Jewish Music In Its Historical Development, Beethoven's use of the melody is probably related to the request by Viennese Jews in 1825 that he compose a cantata for the dedication of the new Reform Temple. Actually, Idelson points out, Beethoven was considering the request, but somehow never got around to it. Then, a year later, Opus 131 saw the light. Undoubtedly, in earlier times, members of such outfits as the Joachim String Quartet and the Budapest String Quartet must have noticed the remarkable similarity between the Jewish melody and the opening measures of the Beethoven adagio, but the first to call attention to it in print was Emil Rreslaur, in Leipzig in 1898 in his book on the ancient origins of synagogue and secular Jewish song.
There it is, abstracted and contracted, in the very short (twenty-eight measures long) sixth movement of Opus 131:

Monday, September 06, 2021

A Tale of Two Cities

In 2017 a new used bookstore opened up on the Charleston square. The owner, who owned the largest used bookstore in Chicago, moved to Charleston (by way of Arkansas) to raise his family in a more rural place. He had also gone to college in Charleston, and had fond memories of the friendly and intellectually offbeat community he encountered here.

I stopped into the bookstore shortly after it opened. Joe, the owner, told me how much he loved the college radio station when he was a student, and that he was having difficulty finding it. All he could get was a "top 40" station.

The radio station he remembered was the one that I worked at during the 1980s and 1990s. It turned into a "hit mix" station right after I left. Sometimes we think that the fixtures in a place will remain there after we leave. But places change, and too many of the fixtures live only in our memory of a place.

Joe's bookstore (called Bob's Books, after his father) made a huge impact on the community. Before it got filled with books, there was space large enough for our Collegium to play a concert there. We even gained a new member that evening because a recorder player from Germany, who had just moved to the area, stopped into the bookstore that evening, and heard our concert. It was such a moment of serendipity.

Joe had to move from the square because of safety issues, but he found a great new location accross the street from the university. After a couple of years the owner of the new building suddenly forced him to move, and he found a new location just off the square in a shaded building adjacent to a coffee shop. It was a perfect location. He moved during the first several months of the pandemic, and was eventually able to open up the store to people who wore masks.

I just learned that Joe has suddenly moved his family to Chicago, and is in the process of moving his bookstore there. I imagine it is because of the people who live around here who refuse to wear masks. I imagine that with all Joe's best intentions to try to give something of value to a city that existed, in part, in his nostalgic memory, it became a full-time job for him to have to deal with people who thought they had a right to go into his store without wearing masks.

It is astounding to me that despite a state mandate for masks, and signs on doors of businesses requiring masks, so few businesses are willing to enforce mask-wearing.

We will miss Joe and his bookstore, and I trust that he will be successful and will be safer and happier in Chicago.

After our first visit to Charleston in 1985 (we came here from Boston in order to look for a place to live), we made a list of a hundred things to like about Charleston. Michael was welcomed by a lively English department, and I was welcomed by a musical community that was happy to have me. Michael put in a good thirty years of teaching before the governor-assisted decline of the university and its enrollment (to put things politely), and I was able to create a baroque ensemble (back in my flute-playing days), work at a radio station, help form a string quartet, go to graduate school, help form a Renaissance consort, and help form a summer string orchestra. Together we live in a house that we really like (after doing a lot to improve it), and enjoy the natural beauty of the area.

We have raised two children, developed some strong friendships, and have participated in many community activities. But it seems to me that most of what we have done for the community is of our own making. We have given more than we have taken, which in most circumstances seems like a good formula for happiness. But so much of what was here has gone away, leaving some shared memories (some good, and some not so good).

And after thirty odd years (some odder than others) this is still home. And I still hope that things can change for the better, even if there is nowhere to buy books in town.

Saturday, September 04, 2021

The Beholder's Share and Music?

I just learned about Alois Rigel's idea about the importance of the viewer when considering the "life" of a piece of art. He calls this the "beholder's share." Here is an excellent video that explains the idea in visual terms.

Here is an article by Anne Sherwood Pundyk that discusses the work of Erik Kandel, the person from whom I learned, via Alan Alda's "Clear and Vivid" podcast, about the whole idea.

The question of how music, a thing that happens in time, relates to this stuff is complicated, and it is really difficult to delve into it without encountering a great deal of the kind of philosophy I have trouble understanding. But I did find this paper by Robert Williams that I would share, simply because I brought up the question.

Can we each bring our individual life experiences into listening to a piece of music the way we can when looking at a piece of visual art? Do we only bring our musical experiences into the experience of music, or does the music itself bring experiences to mind that we hadn't been conscious of?

Some of us do not feel the need to interpret what we hear (allowing it to function as background sound), while others are incapable of listening without paying full attention. And then a whole barnyard of interpretive tools come into play from each of our lives as musicians and as listeners for each listening experience.

Then there is the difference among performing musicians between what one person sees on the page (which itself contains lots of visual-art-related information, along with language information) and what another person sees on the page, and how that person chooses to apply her or his own sense of phrasing, grouping, gradations of tonal color, gradiations of dynamics, gradiations of articulation, and a whole slew of other factors to play a given piece to any number of "beholders," both seen and unseen. If the beholder happens to be a recording device, does it render the player and the beholder one, or does it split the player and beholder into two distinct parts. So many questions.

Friday, September 03, 2021

Viola or Cello Adoration

My violin and piano transcription of Florence Price's Adoration can certainly be played on the viola or the cello, but it is far more viola-or-cello-friendly when transposed down a whole step to C major. Hannah Barton and Michael Finlay put a beautiful video of this version played on viola that I would like to share here.

You can find the viola part here, and the piano score (with the cello part) here.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Evening in Paris

This is the first piece of "Two Places in Illinois." It is a nostalgic look at the Paris of the past.

I got some of these images from a 1908 City Directory that I found by way of I also found a short history of the city, which was once a booming railroad town during the days when you could get almost anywhere by train.