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Tics and Tones …

October 18, 2017 at 10:36 am

My wife told me a fantastic true story about a performance she recently attended.

The concert was of a large choir. Before the singing began, the director spoke to the audience (I’ve paraphrased here):

“Good evening. One of our choir members has Tourette syndrome, and he wanted you to be aware that his particular tic is a high-pitched squeal …”
tweeeeeeeeee …
“… kind of like that.”
(nervous laughter)
“He’s an important part of our choir and we’re really glad that he’s here with us.”
(thunderous applause)

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how music has become a pastime of expertise. I’m thankful that there are musical superstars and ensembles that play with near perfection. I’m thankful that recorded music allows me to listen to any kind of music, anytime, anywhere. But with these wonderful gains have come a loss of personal music making. Many people are afraid to make music in public, lest it become known that they are not great. Many people abandon making music when they graduate from high school, and many never join a band or choir again.

Think back to the story above. This young man is aware that at any moment, he might make a sound that could mar the choir’s performance. The choir is equally aware that this might happen. But both the young man and the other choir members have accepted this reality and have chosen to sing anyway – and all of them are far richer for doing so.

So, if you are one of those people who “used to” or “haven’t since high school”, let me be the first to encourage you to start again. Join a choir, pick up your instrument, improvise, practice, mess up, have fun, work hard. Give thanks for the inspiration of the experts – but let the best music be your own. Don’t be afraid to make an unpleasant sound – because the good sounds will surely outnumber the bad.

The video below was from the whole concert. The piece that the choir sang is “Dwijavanthi”, an unaccompanied choral work that imitates an Indian Raga, written by American composer Ethan Sperry.

And, incidentally, I wasn’t able to hear his tic at all.

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Down with the Dots?

August 31, 2017 at 11:41 am

Which is more valuable: being able to read music or being able to play by ear?

Maybe you’ve had some good armchair arguments on this subject. Team Aural (ear) will point at the multitude of musicians who couldn’t read a note (and no, not all of the musically illiterate were popular or jazz musicians), and were unhindered by this supposed deficiency. Team Literacy*** usually concedes to this, but points out how foolish it is to purposefully not learn something that would be hugely beneficial. The negative stereotypes would be the ear-only rock musician who can only play three chords and a handful of tunes, or the stuffy, classical music reader who merely translates dots on a page into notes, playing without any feeling, and not connecting with the audience.

The truth, naturally, is that both literacy and ear are hugely important. A child can learn stories and life lessons aurally, but it would be ridiculous to use that as an excuse to not teach reading and writing; it is equally ridiculous to reject musical literacy. And just as we teach reading comprehension, musicians must learn to do more than reproduce the printed dots into sound. I need not go into any more detail here – you get the idea.

So when you think about it, the legend of Beethoven‘s Third Piano Concerto isn’t as amazing as it may seem. When it was first performed, the composer himself performed the solo piano part – which had yet to be written down! We have this tidbit from his page turner:

I saw almost nothing but empty pages; at the most, on one page or another a few Egyptian hieroglyphs wholly unintelligible to me were scribbled down to serve as clues for him; for he played nearly all the solo part from memory since, as was so often the case, he had not had time to set it all down on paper. (Steinberg, Michael; The Concerto: A Listener’s Guide)

So be like Beethoven. Master music reading – but don’t forget that the page is just paper covered with funny markings. Neither the musician nor the music should be bound to dots on a page.

*** I say “Literacy” as opposed to “Eye” because there are many blind musicians who are musically literate – just as braille text books exist, so do braille scores!

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If at first you don’t succeed …

July 31, 2017 at 5:14 pm

Gazillions of hours of human effort are spent trying to keep us motivated as we slog through life. We like the idea that if we work hard enough, eventually we’ll achieve our goals. We are told that “90%*** of life is just showing up,” that we should not give up, learn from our failures, and press on,

Sergei Rachmaninoff had a successful career as a pianist, conductor, and composer. Because his writing was relatively conservative during a time of great experimentation and fragmentation of styles, he was getting a lot of play time with major orchestras while other composers were causing scandals. His Fourth Piano Concerto was one of his later compositions – and as he was a highly-regarded composer, everyone expected another smash-hit (like his previous three piano concertos, his tone poems, and his symphonies.)

Well … the Fourth Piano Concerto was no hit. In fact, just about everybody hated it. Rachmaninoff was deeply hurt, but didn’t give up. He immediately cut nearly 10% of the work, hoping a shorter piece would be a little easier to swallow.

Nope. Another 10% was cut. The work was revised over and over again, until at last,¬†15 years after it was premiered, Rachmaninoff gave up, despite being unsatisfied with the final version. 90% of life might be just showing up – but that means there’s another 10% lurking around – and what should¬†we do with that?

*** according to some experts, only 80% of life is just showing up.

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