Monday, October 12, 2015

More About Plato and Music

I don't really buy this claim that Plato's works were arranged to correspond with the 12 notes of a musical scale, but I do like the idea of "not revealing doctrines that would threaten the gods of Olympus." This is something worth reading, particularly for musicians who would, like me, have a bone to pick with Jay Kennedy's musical claims.

Here's some food for thought:
Positive concepts are lodged at the harmonious third, fourth, sixth, eight and ninth "notes", which were considered to be most harmonious with the 12th; while negative concepts are found at the more dissonant fifth, seventh, 10th and 11th.
Given a 12-note chromatic scale, which was more than likely NOT generally used for the music of Plato's time, the third degree of the scale would be a whole step from the root, the fourth degree, would be a minor third away from the root, the sixth degree would be a perfect fourth from the root, the eighth degree would be a perfect fifth, and so on. It doesn't make any musical sense to me.

If the degrees of the 12-note chromatic scale have particular qualities when they sound by themselves, then Plato would have to have had absolute pitch mixed with a kind of synesthesia. What respectable synesthete would divide notes simply between pleasant and dissonant. If that were true Plato would probably have written a lot more specifically about music. I believe that when he discussed modes he was commenting on the linear harmonic nature of a set of pitches going from "tonic" to "tonic" on instruments that did not have the ability to alter themselves chromatically (the lyre vs. the pedal harp, for example).

Sunday, October 11, 2015

More on The Visual Physicality of Violin and Viola Playing

I have been jumping back and forth between practicing string, wind, and keyboard instruments a lot lately, and have consequently been thinking about music, movement, and vision.

String playing requires a lot of functional body movement, but, when playing the flute or the recorder, functional body movement is restricted to the breathing mechanism in the horizontal and vertical center of the body, the mouth cavity (also central), and the fingers. In the case of the recorder (or I guess with any wind or brass instrument) the hands, arms, and fingers oppose one another in a relatively still position at the center of the body. Wind players have the luxury of reading music head-on, so the music is always in the center of a wind player's physical field of vision.

The flute is different from other wind instruments because the hands and arms are off to one side, though their function is pretty much the same. The mind's eye of a flutist has to be taught to visualize to the right, because that's where the fingers of both hands contact the keys. The hands and fingers are "over there," and they are impossible to actually see them when you are playing. All wind players must use their inner vision to pay attention to the inside of their mouths and the interior components of their breathing mechanisms. Nobody can really see that stuff without fancy imaging equipment.

Both hands function the same way when a musician plays a wind instrument. The fingers of both hands work like levers, and ideally make the same motions, rising to and dropping from the same height, and landing in various combinations at the same time. Sometimes the little fingers and thumbs work actual levers, but that doesn't change the basic function of the fingers. The hands stay still, and they make sure the fingers function efficiently.

A string player's fingers and hands do different things while being totally interdependent. The fingers of the left hand work like levers, and the left thumb works like a flexible fulcrum. The left hand fingers, powered by the arms, generate some elements of expression, and that expression is generated by constant efficient motion. The right hand fingers are both firm and flexible, and the thumb acts like a stable fulcrum, but the joint still bends when it needs to bend. The fingers sometimes pull and push the bow, and are sometimes pushed and pulled by the arm. They do millions of unseen and impossible-to-articulate unconscious things (not unlike the ideomotor phenomenon) that unlocks the subconscious mind.

Unlike wind playing, there is no actual physical contact between the components that set the musical vibrations into motion. String players have to feel the music through sticks, hair, and wire (or gut). The music we make exists outside of the body, yet we cradle the instrument in the most intimate part of our neck (or lap) and use the bow to make the instrument feel like it vibrates the way a voice vibrates. We sometimes have the mental illusion that we are singing when we are playing.

How the left hand looks has a huge amount to do with playing efficiently, and how the right hand steers the bow in order to keep parallel to the bridge and make efficient string crossings has everything to do with the sound. Violinists and violists have to constantly visualize left, right, and center, paying constant attention to all parts of that semi-circle we occupy. We have to use our inner eyes the way we use our peripheral vision while driving (but, thank goodness, we don't need to know what's happening directly behind us).

My flute-mind "training" has taught me to visualize right when I am looking at music, so I can easily look at music and "see" my bow hand. But there is a whole world of "left" that violinists and violist also have to keep in the mind's eye. The mind's eye has to be taught to visualize a full 180 degrees (and even more, considering the fact that the tip of the bow extends another 20 degrees when playing up-bow on one of the lower strings) in addition to looking at the music. The violinist's or violist's mind's eye has to imagine a wider span than a pianist's mind's eye.

Visualizing the whole half circle (and more) is always a challenge for me. I understand the challenge more acutely when I spend time practicing the recorder, which is like a vacation from peripheral visualization. Even practicing the piano involves less than 180 degrees of vision (even at the extremes of the keyboard, I can see both hands). Practicing with a mirror (or two) is really useful, but once you take the mirror away the mind's eye is on its own.

I always enjoy sitting to the right when I share a music stand because my real vision is "aiming" to the left, and my left hand can be "visually louder" (by physical default) than my right hand. The conductor is also easily in view at the center. This orchestral season I will be sitting on the left side of the stand, so I will have to work harder at left-side awareness because I will be looking at the music towards the right. I'm looking forward (right and left) to the challenge.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

A Conversation with André Previn

I really enjoyed reading the transcript of Frank Oteri's July 31st conversation with André Previn (which includes Molly Sheridan's film--I'm not sure who did what). I also enjoyed reading No Minor Chords, Previn's 1991 memoir about his days in Hollywood (that you can buy used for 1 cent on Amazon).

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Handwriting and the Bow Arm

Isn't it interesting that we all have personal ways of expressing ourselves through handwriting? Some people who grew up in the middle of the 20th century keep the classic models handed (oy--no pun intended) to them by their early training, some evolved through the stylized fads of adolescence, and some have morphed into a scrawl that can only be understood by a select few. Some people have very small handwriting, and some people have very large handwriting. People use their fingers to hold writing instruments in different ways: one grip doesn't work for everybody.

Penmanship often depends on the quality (or type) of pen (or pencil) we use. For some handwriting geniuses the tool doesn't matter. I only write well when I use one of a few specific fountain pens or one of a few specific kinds of pencils. Everyone has a spectrum of neatness. Some people (even the very young) can be both neat, quick, and elegant without appearing to think about it, and some adults simply cannot write in a hand that looks "grown up."

As the title of this post suggests, I think there is a direct correlation to the way a string player uses the bow. With bowing there is a also continuum of neatness. It is possible to bow mindlessly, paying attention only to whether the bow is going up or down, and it is possible to bow with extreme mindfulness, using microscopic differences of speed and pressure to make nuances and generate efficient musical energy. The bow itself also matters a great deal. A great bow can offer worlds of musical motivation simply by the way it moves, the way it contacts the string, the kind of sounds it can produce, and the way it feels in the hand. A pen or pencil can offer a similar kind of motivation for expression: the way it moves, the way it contacts the paper, the way ink flows from it, and the way it feels in the hand.

The best bow arms look and "feel" like they are generating Spencerian script.

Habits of good "bowmanship" can be taught to very young children (but they can still play mindlessly), and extremely mindful use of the bow can still result in playing that is less than elegant if the motions are not yet integrated into a player's musical physiology. It takes time and work to develop the muscles that constitute a good bow arm, and it takes constant attention to keep that developed bow arm behaving properly.

Then there's the question of having something to say!

Saturday, September 26, 2015

A Pope Who Loves Music

This American visit of Pope Francis seems to bring joy to a great many people, but I think that the Pope must be taking great personal pleasure in the music that he has been hearing during this visit. I loved seeing the look on his face (through my television screen) while he was listening to the very end of the performance of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony played by the Philadelphia Orchestra (in the finest of Philadelphia form) earlier this evening. I also loved the way he greeted cantor Azi Schwartz after his tremendous singing of El maleh rachamim during the interfaith service yesterday morning. What a great honor it was to be present, if only through electronic media, for these moments of musical affirmation.

Paradigm Shift

I had a little time in the library before meeting with my Medieval/Renaissance ensemble yesterday, so after browsing among the new titles I came across a book by Katelijne Schiltz about riddles in Renaissance music. I did not have my library card with me, so I was only able to read a little bit of it.

Normally, after reading the descriptions and catalog of various riddle canons (you can see some of the catalog here) my mind would have instantly gone in the direction of writing a riddle canon.

Come to think of it, until just a month or two ago nearly everything I read would inspire me (and sometimes even compel me) to express myself musically. But something has changed.

From the time I began writing music seriously about 20 years ago I have always had a composition project going. I don't know where my compulsion to write music came from, and I marvel at the amount of music that I managed to write while doing the other "stuff" of life. I'm very proud of what I have written, and I know I could write something if I were asked to, but I no longer feel compelled to write music.

Now that I have reached a technical level commensurate with the repertoire I want to play, I get a great deal of satisfaction out of playing the viola (and occasionally the violin). After about 25 years to string playing, I finally feel free to really be creative with my playing. When I hear recordings of myself playing I sometimes even like what I hear.

The newest addition to my musical menagerie is the piano. I started practicing the piano for a few reasons, the first being to improve as a composer by studying Bach's Preludes and Fugues in the Well-Tempered Clavier. My second reason was to adequately accompany my students in lessons, and be proficient enough to be able to concentrate on their playing while playing with them.

I am nearly through my third "cycle" of the WTC, and this time around I am spending more time with each prelude and fugue. I consider my daily meeting with Bach sacred time. I am also finding myself feeling expressive when playing the piano. I dabble in other music too: Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, in particular. Approaching this great music with the ear of a composer is a treat. Not trying to produce something of similar quality is, frankly, a relief.

Maybe this current state of affairs comes from reading Nabokov. Michael and I just finished Speak Memory, and are now reading Ada. Even though he was a descendant of Carl Heinrich Graun, and his son grew up to become an opera singer, Vladimir Nabokov didn't care much for music. One of his particular dislikes was "kudos, kudos vy udalilis" from Tchaikovsky's Eugen Onegin. [Here's a translation of the aria.] I find it an interesting idiosyncrasy that anyone could dislike this, one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written, but Nabokov certainly was a singular human being, and an extraordinary writer. Perhaps he had so much to his life, literary and otherwise, that he didn't have room for music.

Maybe things will change. I'll let you know when we finish Ada.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Note to Self: Paying Attention

Most adult musicians (and many student musicians) know exactly what they need to do in order to get the best sound out of their instruments while moving from one note to the next. We teach techniques to our students, and we practice them when we play our own scales and etudes.

We strive to pay attention at all times so that the things we need to do in order to sound good all the time become nearly unconscious. There is a point, however, that those bits of technical know-how become so unconscious that we no longer give them the attention they still need.

The act of playing well is the act of constant attention. If we don't pay attention to the way we sound in passages that are naturally less resonant (we all come across pesky passages that are difficult to play because of physical and/or harmonic reasons), the less-than-ideal sound we make becomes a sound we accept and sometimes even ignore. It's kind of like the dust that accumulates in corners, on Venetian blinds, and on the tops of books. You clean them once, and somehow, while we are not looking, the dust returns.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Beethoven and Sanders

When was the last time Americans had a presidential candidate (or any other kind of candidate) who would use a whole movement of a Beethoven Symphony to frame an argument? I confess that sometimes I was distracted by the Beethoven (I always get distracted when people use intact pieces of music for background), but by the development section I found common ground. I really appreciate the way the coda frames the coda of the argument, and the way the people who made the film allowed Beethoven to close the argument.

I have heard that both Democrats and Republicans have responded strongly in favor of what Bernie Sanders has to say and how he says it. I can certainly understand why.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

A Rare Teaching Opportunity

Yesterday I was working on a minuet with a beginning student, and when she came upon one of these

her immediate response was, "What is THAT?"

[The student's name is a diminutive of Grace, and I knew that this was a rare and golden opportunity.]

I told her what it was, and she laughed. She suggested that maybe I told her older brother, who also studies with me, that that kind of note had his name on it. We consulted the dictionary, and she knew that I was not fooling with her.

I told her that since it had her name on it she could play it as long or briefly as she liked, as long as the combination of the grace note and the main note added up to the value of the main note. She liked that.

Monday, September 14, 2015


I believe in Bach. I believe that Bach wrote his non-contrapuntal unaccompanied string music for musicians to play with imaginary accompanying voices (that do not need to be notated). I believe that every string player has a different set of accompanying voices to the violin partitas and cello suites, and I believe that those accompanying voices change as we grow as musicians. Perhaps those silent individual and personal accompaniments are what make each individual interpretation unique.

Of course the word "Credo," has religious associations. I think about Bach and the concept of God often. You could even say that when I play Bach or hear Bach played I feel connected to the concept of God. I could even go as far as saying that I feel the idea of God within the music of Bach. Sometimes it seems to be present in between the lines of counterpoint in the Well-Tempered Clavier, kind of like those phantom voices that lurk below and above the cello suites and the violin partitas (that I get to play on the viola).

Today is Rosh Hashanah, and I had the honor of blowing the Shofar during services this morning. In light of my Bach musings, the Gates of Repentance passage, "The Psalmist affirms: God stands revealed amid acclamation; the Lord, amid the sound of the Shofar," really resonated with me today.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Celebrating Wild Garlic

The bees and butterflies have done their work, and our wild garlic harvest is rich this year. I use wild garlic in everything that isn't sweet, and even though it has nothing to do with music (besides inspiring it), I'm offering this little set of portraits. If you see this stuff growing in meadows and along roadsides, pinch it to make sure it smells like garlic, and try cooking with some yourself.

I like using it at every stage. I use the stems and closed buds when they first appear in July as chives, I use the flowers (they are nice raw in salads), and then I use what I call the "berries" at the end of summer.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

A Film About Meadowmount From the 1960s

Perhaps we can all put our heads together and identify some of the musicians in this short film! Please send the link to this post to your friends in their 70s (contemporary with Itzhak Perlman, who is easy to identify) and 80s (I will too). Put your identifications in the comments, and make sure to give the time location in the film. Ready, set, go!

UPDATE: I have some identifications! The "headless" coach is Josef Gingold. James Buswell is the first violinist in the quartet (the one with THE BOW ARM), and Sarah Johnson (sister of BJ Johnson) is the violinist playing the Mendelssohn.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Sleeping Beauty Waltz

The New Jersey Korean American Youth Orchestra recently put a video of my transcription of Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty Waltz on YouTube. I made the transcription for string quartet, but it sure sounds great as a piece for string orchestra.

[The Tchaikovsky transcription begins at the 2-minute mark.]

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Who Should Be Paying for the Music?

Perhaps my mindset concerning the economics of music is a bit odd, but I feel that it is one worth sharing because it informs everything I do with music.

I was born into a musical family, and string playing was pretty much "grandparented in." Both my grandfathers played the violin, my grandmother played the piano, my mother played the flute, and my father made his living as the principal violist of the Boston Symphony. I grew up in a city that had a thriving music program with peers who were serious about music. While most kids were doing teenagerly things, my friends and I practiced and played in orchestras and wind ensembles that had charismatic leaders.

There were enough of "us" in the greater Boston area to make a small culture.

In the beginning of my "career" as a music student my parents paid for my lessons, but I somehow became friends with a few great musicians and teachers who wanted to teach me for free. I guess my willingness to try their musical and technical suggestions provided adequate payment for what they had to teach me. After I graduated from Juilliard (paid for by my father) I found myself in school situations (like the Hochschule in Vienna and graduate school) where tuition was covered by the state. I have had close friendships with older and wiser musicians who have served as mentors, and I have a brilliant father who can answer any question I have about the things I encounter in my travels through the orchestral and chamber music repertoire.

I have always had excellent instruments, and most of them have been given to me as gifts. I married a great guy who supports me in all my musical endeavors, and I have not had to work at a non-musical job for 30 years. I have had time to practice, and have been able to follow new musical passions as they have presented themselves. I have also been able to play chamber music with wonderful and patient colleagues who are also great friends. Many of them live close by.

My musical "cup" overflows. Sometimes that overflow takes the form of original music, and sometimes it takes the form of arrangements and transcriptions.

So much of the current musical culture involves making the practicing, studying, or performing musician into a customer. Publishing companies and recording companies think of composers and performing musicians as revenue sources. When a publisher makes 90% of the price he or she puts on a piece of music and pays a 10% royalty to the composer in exchange for essential ownership of a piece of music, that composer is only being well served when the publisher puts great resources into marketing. For most non-pop and non-religious compositions written by composers who are not already household names, marketing doesn't seem to pay off. I have 77 perfectly good pieces published by a reputable publisher, and I rarely see a royalty check. I also do not have the power to move the published music into the public domain if I choose to do so.

With all the musical gifts that have been handed to me over the years, I hate the idea of marketing the music I write to musicians. I hate to think of musicians as potential customers. Most musicians are poorly paid for the work they do. Many musicians have to take out loans to buy adequate instruments. Many musicians work very hard and do not make a lot of money.

I have always considered a thoughtful performance of a piece of music I have written is adequate payment for the work I put into it. I really do write music and make arrangements for my mental and emotional health. If it was something that I felt was a chore to do, I might think differently. If I were a different person with a different life situation, I might think differently. But I don't.

I do think that musicians who perform for audiences should be paid to play. A musician can make the choice to give a performance as a gift, but it should be acknowledged as a gift. I believe that the people who haven't put the time into preparing (or are unable to do) what performing musicians do should be the people paying for the musical experience.

I find it extremely satisfying (even rewarding) to make the music I write available through the IMSLP. Since it is impossible to pay back the kindnesses that people have shown me through my life (many of my kind friends are no longer alive), sharing the music I write and the arrangements I make is my way of paying the kindness forward. I cannot sell arrangements of songs that are not in the public domain without getting into legal trouble, so I share the arrangements I make with people who want them. You write to me (I need to know that you are a serious musician looking for music to play), and I give you access to an on-line folder. It's a simple exchange that doesn't require postage or printing (on my part). Everybody is happy, and people have music to play.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Music in Willa Cather's The Best Years

Though there is not yet any direct mention of music in Willa Cather's The Best Years, which can be found in the out-of-print set of Cather stories published in 1948 as The Old Beauty and Others (Michael and I read half of The Best Years today), there is such music in Cather's prose. Here's one example:
The horizon was like a perfect circle, a great embrace, and within it lay the cornfields, still green, and the yellow wheat stubble, miles and miles of it, and the pasture lands where the white-faced cattle led lives of utter content. All their movements were deliberate and dignified. They grazed through all the morning; approached their metal water tank and drank. If the windmill had run too long and the tank had overflowed, the cattle trampled the overflow into deep mud and cooled their feet. Then the drifted off to graze again. Grazing was not merely eating, it was also a pastime, a form of reflection, perhaps meditation.
Here's another that mentions sound:
If they turned in early, they had a good while to enjoy the outside weather; they never went to sleep until after ten o'clock, for then came the sweetest morsel of the night. At that hour Number Seventeen, the westbound passenger, whistled in. The station and the engine house were perhaps an eighth of a mile down the hill, and from far away across the meadows the children could hear that whistle. Then came the heavy pants of the locomotive in the frosty air. Then a hissing--then silence: she was taking water.
Willa Cather worked for a time as a tutor for the Menuhin family, and remained a close family friend after the Menuhin children grew up. You can see some interesting passages about the relationship from a Cather-based perspective here, and from a Menuhin-based perspective here.