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.