Saturday, January 28, 2023

A Watched Pot . . .

Observation for the day: a watched pot may never seem to boil, but an unwatched pot always boils over.

I would consider the magic of crossing the top of the pot with a wooden spoon as a kind of "pot watching." It is like engaging a pot watcher while you are off chopping vegetables, grating cheese, cleaning counters, washing dishes, and other multi-tasky, kitcheny things.

I have been thinking about the way this observation could apply to things in musical life. Those of us who practice an instrument diligently tend to "watch the pot," hoping for all of the physical work we do to amount to some kind of fluency in a passage over a matter of minutes. But I find that after practicing a passage carefully for a while, and then taking time away from it, I can come back to the passage at hand with a refreshed sense of physical balance and a less-cluttered mind. And then I wonder why it was once so hard.

Those of us who were in a hurry to grow up as children or as teenagers felt that time moved slowly. Perhaps because we were so busy "watching the pot." But time progresses at the same rate whether you are watching or not. And in musical terms "boiling over" is not a bad thing at all. Unlike water, which has a specific boiling point, musical expression, in all its varieties, is limitless.

I wonder if some of us "watch the pot" when it comes to relationships with friends, students, and young people in real physical time, wondering where a relationship might "go," if a student will "get it," or waiting for a child to grow into a pair of shoes that were still too big. And is the anticipation of a future event (a birthday, a party, the beginning of school, graduation from school) an act of "pot watching?"

I find great joy in filling time paying attention to details when reading a book, writing music (or blog posts), playing chamber music, listening to a concert, or talking with friends. It would be nice to employ the time-altering features of pot watching to give certain moments lasting weight, but time flows on, and consciously preserving moments in is not something I can control.

Sometimes when I am writing music I am able to create an illusion of a pitch or phrase lasting longer than it actually does in measured time. When that happens I celebrate, but I don't actually know how to make such moments happen. Minimalist-style repetition is one tool (trick), but it doesn't work in every musical context.

With our electric stove we need to during the dial to "high" to start the burner "burning." Then you can turn it down (unless you forget). Fortunately life itself doesn't always have to be propelled by high heat. We have the option of turning down the flame to keep things at a nice simmer, which can help us to savor special moments.

I have found that one of the benefits of age is the ability to appreciate moderation in some things, including savoring slow progress. I used to be in such a hurry, and I missed a great deal because I wasn't paying enough attention. I'm trying to do better.

But now, in the age of the internet, it is challenging to keep the heat low, to pay full attention, and to feel comfortable with moderation.

The saying goes, Dance like no one is watching." But when the dance floor is on line, it is hard to dance as if no one is watching, because our hope is that someone might be watching. And when it seems that nobody is "watching" (reading, listening, playing, or even caring) it is disheartening.

I remember during my years at the radio station I wondered if anyone was listening. In the mid 1980s our station was the strongest public radio station (for forty miles in all directions) in the small area of the FM dial allotted to non-commercial radio. (That was before a local Christian radio station started broadcasting with a strong signal that made our signal harder to get.)

But every once in a while, a good twenty plus years since I stopped my life as a "radio broadcast professional," people in town tell me how much they enjoyed my radio programs. And every once in a while I get a note or a recording from somebody who has enjoyed playing something I wrote, and I find that my cup is full and even overflowing.

Monday, January 23, 2023

Telemann Fantasias Transcribed for Viola

The IMSLP has a very nice autograph of George Philipp Telemann's 1735 Fantasias for violin. After spending years correcting the errors in the 1955 Barenreiter edition made by Günther Haußwald (which can be found in the above IMSLP entry), and years working with viola transcriptions that have those errors plus new errors that crop up when making new engravings, I have finally devoted the necessary time to making a transcription that works for me.

The people over at cellofun put engraving files in the IMSLP for their cello transcription. I adjusted those files to fit on letter-size paper, and made corrections and additions using Telemann's manuscript as a guide. Before beginning I compared Telemann's manuscript here with other autographs of Telemann, and became convinced that the manuscript in the IMSLP is indeed in his hand and not the hand of a copyist.

My transcription (which you can get on this page of the IMSLP) is not an "edition" because I haven't included fingering or bowing suggestions, but I have included all the dynamic markings that Telemann put in the manuscript, and I have included the articulations that he indicated.

I learned a great deal about the music while working on this transcription. I noticed, for example, that the end of Fantasia #8 doesn't resolve! Look at that elaborate double bar at the end. This was not an oversight. I consider it a window into Telemann's musical personality.
Another nifty moment is the end of Fantasia #10, which can function as an infinite loop:
(Notice the double bar at the end of this. That is a normal Telemann double bar.)

Now I can just play these on the viola and think about the music instead of thinking about making a version that is easy to read and (hopefully) free of errors. But if you happen to find an error (or two) I might have missed, please let me know, and I will correct it.

UPDATE: I uploaded a revised version already (with page numbers), and put a version for solo violin (the original) in the IMSLP.

Sunday, January 15, 2023

"My" Fugue

I remember when the two books of J.S. Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier made their way (by means of a visit my father must have made to a used music store) into my childhood household. They were intended for my piano-playing younger brother, but my older brother Marshall claimed "ownership" of the E minor Fugue in the second volume. He said that it was "his" because it had the longest subject (for that reason it was played at his memorial service).

I claimed the D minor Fugue of the second volume as "my" fugue because I loved the chromatic scale in the subject, and perhaps because it was in D minor, and though I do not have absolute pitch (like both my brothers), I do have a sense of key, and D minor has always been special for me.

When, as a non-pianist, I claimed this fugue, I had no hope of ever being able to play it fluently. Yesterday, after a good decade of dedicated adult piano practice, I was able to do it. So I am just marking the moment with this post.

The fugue begins two minutes in. The prelude is as remarkable as the fugue.

Friday, January 13, 2023

Two Passages from Moby Dick

My friend Daniel Gianola-Norris loves Melville, and he particularly loves Moby Dick. I wrote this piece for two trumpets for him early in 2022, and today he uploaded a beautiful video to YouTube, and as a bonus he reads the passages from the novel that "inform" the music. If you have not yet read Moby Dick, now is a great time to read it. Now is always a great time to read Moby Dick. Thank you for making this video, Dan!

Monday, January 09, 2023

Feet and Hands

I always assumed that having painful knees was just a manifestation of achieving a certain age. I recently learned (from our daughter) that having painful knees is a manifestation (whoa--what a good word for this post!) of wearing rigid shoes that discourage your toes from having the feeling of contact with the ground when you walk.

Michael and I are in the process of getting rid of shoes that we thought were good for our feet (like Dansko clogs), and are replacing them with shoes that are wide enough in the toebox for our toes to move, and narrow enough (and nicely padded) in the heel to stay put while walking. The basic idea is to feel as comfortable in shoes as you would be without shoes. And the solution to knee pain, at least for me, is involving my toes in the way I walk, so that my big toe is the last thing to leave the ground. Zero drop "barefoot" style shoes make it possible for me to feel the way my toes interact with the ground.

Now that I am paying so much attention to my feet, I have been wondering if the parts of the brain that are allowing me to focus on my feet and toes might also be helping my hands and fingers as I navigate my way around the fingerboard and the keyboard. Since paying attention to my feet when I walk (and when I sit, and when I stand) I feel that I have more connection with my hands and fingers when I play.

I have never been comfortable wearing heels, and have been particularly uncomfortable wearing heels for concerts, because the idea of carrying my instrument while standing on my tiptoes has always been frightening.

I remember watching Yura Lee play in the Indianapolis Competition in 2006, and noticed that she wore slippers. They were elegant slippers (not fuzzy ones), and they allowed her total freedom of movement. Not wearing high heels for women is not new, but until only recently it was not considered a possibility for being "properly dressed." High heels are so often associated with female power, but they are, as far as I'm concerned, a tool of oppression. If your feet hurt but you think they make your legs look good, you give a lot of mental energy to ignoring your feet while you are in the process of "looking good." Combine this with using your hands, arms, and back to play an instrument, and you are giving your body mixed messages.

Since I have spent a lot of time online looking at Zero-drop shoes, ads for shoes that fit into the comfort profile have been popping up in my email, and in my Facebook and Instagram feeds. You can get inexpensive sneaker-like shoes that resemble the PF flyer sneakers I wore as a little kid:
I remember when "girl's" PF Flyers started getting more narrow. Big kids (like the five-year-old me and my seven-year-old big brother) didn't wear round-toed shoes (like our three-year-old little brother). Sneakers for "big" girls were narrow, to mimic the narrowness of the 1960s adult woman's shod foot, and I remember that sneakers for "big" boys were called "basketball shoes," and had a more pointed toe than the sneakers that little kids wore. All of them gave you blisters, and there was nothing you could do about it except develop callouses.
The new era of healthy adult shoes are designed for adult feet (more in the way of laces and nice padding at the heel so that you don't get blisters).
These are considered "beginner" shoes, which I think means that they are inexpensive, but they will draw you into a world of higher-end barefoot shoes, and can send eventually lead you to briefly consider the idea of spending hundreds of dollars on hand-made vegetable leather shoes made by shoe artists in remote villages in Sweden.

I wonder if wearing high heeled shoes will eventually become a thing of the past, like the way foot binding fell out of fashion in China.

Thursday, January 05, 2023

Paying it forward

People do things for others for various reasons. Some people do things for others in a transactional way, with the understanding that a favor will be returned, and some do things for others out of a sense of obligation. Some people do things for others as an expression of their faith, and some people do things for others because it simply makes them feel good.

Some people do things for others out of a sense of pure love, or out of a sense of gratitude.

What is often called "paying it forward" is my underlying motivation for just about everything I do. I have been extremely fortunate to have encountered some remarkable people during my six decades (plus a few years), and they have given me far more than they know. As the translator of the psalms in the King James Bible so eloquently puts it, "My cup runneth over."

So this new year I feel the need to express my gratitude to Daniel Morganstern, who I met when I was nineteen. He was thirty-eight. (He remarked that we were an octave apart at that time.) I was a flutist with a lousy relationship with my instrument, a lousy relationship with my teacher and the institution where I was studying, and a great love for music (but not necessarily flute music). Danny embraced me as a friend, and showed me what real teaching was. He and his wife June took me into their household as a daily visitor (at least during the hiatus between the ballet season and the opera season), fed me, and taught me a lot about the basics of life--things I hadn't properly learned when I was a child or a teenager.

Danny listened to me play all the time (something that most people in my life didn't do), and he listened with the ears of a great musician who held Paul Dunkel as the pinnacle of great flute playing. He did his best to try and get me to play like Paul Dunkel without knowing a single thing about playing the flute. He also introduced me to Heifetz, and together we listened to the entire Heifetz collection (at least all the LP recordings that were available in 1978).

Our friendship has lasted for decades, and it has influenced everything that I have done as a musician. Through my friendship with Danny I was able to get off the flute-playing path (which for me was a path that was paved with good intentions, but led nowhere), and become a string player. His encouragement inspired me to encourage other people on their musical paths. And no matter how much help I give Danny with the things I can help him with, there is always more to give. It is and has always been a true friendship.

I share his friendship with many other people. We all know a lot about one another, though most of us haven't met one another. Danny's friends are my friends, and will always be.

He taught me how to be a friend. He taught me how to really be a teacher. He continues to teach me how to be a better person and a better musician. And he understands my concept of "paying it forward," because he taught me how through the way he lives his life. I could never "repay" Danny for what he has done for me, but I can pay it forward.

When I returned to life as a string player in my small college town, and after twenty years away from my time as an unremarkable child violinist, my community helped me in incredible ways. As soon as he heard of my return to violin playing, Donald Tracy, the cello professor at the university and the conductor of the university's orchestra, brought a folder of orchestra music to my house. He brought his violin too, and took the violin that I had just purchased from one of the students at the radio station to St. Louis to be worked into playing shape. I barely remembered how to play, but I threw myself into the "fire" (which was The Firebird). 

I started taking lessons with Tom LeVeck, the father of one of my previous flute students, the husband of one of my doctors, and a member of the St. Louis Symphony. After several months of intense and obsessive practicing I had a rudimentary understanding of the violin, and had the luck to buy a good viola for $100 that I found at a yard sale in my neighborhood.

Tom and I had the idea of trying to assemble string quartet. One of the students at the radio station was an excellent cellist (a student of Don Tracy, mentioned above), and my good friend Terry Coulton, a violinist who had just given birth to twins, was somehow willing to play. Terry brought her twins to Tom's house, and we read quartets. They were all so kind to me. I didn't know my way around the alto clef, and didn't know my way outside of first position on the viola, but the three of them were happy to be able to play music together with me faking my way through the viola part.

They were willing to teach me how to play string chamber music without really knowing how much I didn't know. And with a few changes in personnel, we are still playing string quartets together.

I have great compassion for the adult beginner, and have spent a great deal of time making arrangements for string ensembles that adult beginners can play in. When I started my life as an adult beginner there were very few orchestral pieces that had a physically easy enough second violin part for me to feel that I could really contribute to the music making. So when Terry and I started our Summer Strings orchestra, I made arrangements that could be played by adult beginners as well as beginners who were not adults.

My most recent endeavor in the "paying it forward" department is playing in a string quartet that sprang out of a Summer Strings season. As the resident "professional" at string quartet playing, but sitting the first violin seat rather than the viola seat, I get the chance to work with people new to string quartet playing, and figure out how to help them sound better as an ensemble. It sometimes involves a little work. It sometimes involves a lot of work. But it is always rewarding. 

With every meeting of this ensemble I feel that I am paying forward the kindness that my first string quartet friends showed me. And my reward is in the moments of real music making that come from the work we do, and learning how to be a better composer through the great music we play.