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!


Advanced Conducting Techniques 101

February 15, 2017 at 11:00 am

Of all the musical tasks I’ve had to do, conducting is by far the weirdest. On one hand, the conductor is of supreme importance as the leader of the troops. On the other hand, the conductor makes no sound, and is therefore essentially useless. I’ve worked with ensembles who want every nuance clearly defined by subtle hand gestures coupled with eyebrow lifts, and I’ve worked with ensembles that want a downbeat and nothing more. I’ve messed up conducting pieces I had studied for ages and perfectly conducted pieces that I had never seen before. A great conductor with a bad ensemble will probably make a bad performance because the musicians won’t bother to look at the conductor, while a bad conductor with a great ensemble will probably perform well because the musicians will just ignore the conductor anyway. And yet, even though the performers claim to “never watch the conductor”, when something goes wrong, guess who gets the blame? The Sword of Damocles constantly hangs over the conductor’s head.

So what makes a great conductor? Here are some totally legitimate conducting moves that will up your conducting game. In no particular order:

1. The CLAW. This is legendary conductor James Levine’s signature left-hand move. It was first unveiled in 1990 at the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Wagner‘s Siegfried. Note how at first, you see The Claw slowly taking shape, but at 1:50 it completely takes control of his body – nothing can stop the awesome power of The Claw once you allow it into your conducting.

And here is Levine, much later in his career. You can see how The Claw has consumed and destroyed him; it dominates nearly every musical moment.

2. The MINIMALIST. When you’ve been asked to lead the best classical orchestra in the world, why bother doing anything at all? What could you possible do to make the best musicians any better? Even Leonard Bernstein, one of the world’s greatest conductors (and a composer), knew better than to try to mess with perfection. So he stood there, listened, and sort of smiled.

3. The MOMENT OF REALIZATION. This is a move created by Simon Rattle. After giving a handful of very specific cues, begin conducting as the Minimalist (see above), except with a stunned, euphoric face as if God has just revealed the secrets of the universe to you. That’s what happened in the video below – well, either that, or he just realized that he forgot to comb his hair for an entire decade.

Speaking of combing …
4. The HAIR. Some conductors like to use a baton to exaggerate gestures and make it easier for large ensembles to stay together. Some conductors prefer the expressiveness of the empty hand. The best conductors, though, conduct primarily through their hairdo.

5. The WHATEVER. If the performers know the music backwards-and-forwards, the conductor doesn’t have to worry about technical things like cues or keeping the group together. If you find yourself in this lucky position, just wiggle your fingers or make little goofy motions to ensure you don’t get fired for being redundant. Here are some expert examples:

6. The SPARKLY SEXY SHINY SHIRT. A tuxedo might be the standard conducting attire, but if you need a boost to your skillset, a Gold Shirt +1 will increase your CHA and your dancing abilities.

7. The COMPLETE IDIOT. If these masterful conducting moves are too difficult for you, don’t give up. Anyone can be a conductor, given the right circumstances.

If you know of any similar videos of masterful conducting, please post them in the comments!


On Joy, Freedom, and Walls (An die Freude, Freiheit, und Waende)

January 29, 2017 at 3:46 pm

On Christmas Day, 1989, Leonard Bernstein conducted a concert in Berlin – on the program was Ludwig van Beethoven‘s Ninth Symphony. Germany was celebrating its reunification – the Berlin Wall had been torn down only a month earlier. The text of the “Ode to Joy” was altered – “Freude” (joy) was replaced with “Freiheit” (freedom). Some scholars argue that the original text indeed used the word “Freiheit”, and that the poet changed it out of fear of persecution.

Beethoven’s 9th symphony is a marvel. It is a symbol of the strength of the human spirit in the face of evil, always looking towards beauty, always dreaming of a better world. It’s no surprise that it is the Anthem of the European Union. It’s a symbol of the hope for human unity:

[Joy’s / Freedom’s] magic brings together what old traditions has unjustly divided. All men shall be as brothers where your gentle wings hover. Be embraced, you millions; this kiss is for the whole world!

Thirty years after the Berlin Wall was torn down and Germany was celebrating its unity, we Americans are building a new wall and actively dividing ourselves from our fellow humans. It is disgusting. We must do whatever we can to stop this. I am not a warrior, I am a musician; I cannot fight with weapons, so I will fight with Beethoven.