Sunday, May 21, 2017

Paying my Dues, Making Mistakes

I have worked through the Mike Garson video masterclass, as I described here. At this distance, the most valuable lesson he taught me was how to practice improvisation, working from two directions: short etudes, as little as fifteen or thirty seconds, and extended “playing around” with a tune, an idea he learned from Thelonious Monk. That, and Garson’s attitude toward music as a gift from a higher power, and the responsibility that entails: gratitude, humility, helping and healing others with our music.

Recently, I found another “teacher” – Dave Frank, whose “school of jazz” is here. He has a series of free “masterclass” videos; I have watched two so far. They are enjoyable, and I got some ideas from both of them.

One of them was on the playing of Keith Jarrett, whom Frank calls “the greatest pianist of the recorded era.” As he explains, we cannot compare Jarrett’s improvisations with Bach’s, or Beethoven’s, or Chopin’s, for they made no recordings. But he is the best that we have had since it became possible to make recordings, in any genre – jazz, classical, whatever.

I am not prepared to agree with that, though Frank presents a convincing argument. But Jarrett is definitely one of the best. In some respects, his LP “Köln Concert” (the highest-selling solo piano recording of all time, over 2 million copies) planted the seed for what I attempt in my little piano improvisations. [Here is a YouTube version, one of many: this one includes a transcription of the first twenty-five minutes – the first side of the two LPs]

Jarrett’s improvisations were on the grandest of scale, and these concerts established his fame beyond the narrow circles of jazz enthusiasts. I purchased the album in the 1970’s when it first came out, and I pretty much wore it out. I still have it. I had never heard anything like it; Mike Garson’s “Now” music comes closest, and perhaps closer to what I do, for Jarrett explicitly quotes no pre-existing tunes and I do, always, for my work can exist only in the context of the Divine Liturgy and its music.

Yes, I would love to play like Keith Jarrett. Or like Mike Garson. So would a lot of other pianists. But there is a problem; I haven’t paid my dues. In this documentary, Jarrett said that the place where he learned most of his jazz tunes was the club in the Poconos where he played in his early teens. No one was listening, so he would learn tune after tune. Garson played a lot of club gigs, too, with few listeners and minimal pay, before he connected with David Bowie.

I haven’t done that. I do not know the jazz standards or the styles – which would take years of careful listening and imitation – and I will never be able to play in that manner.

But, as I considered these things, I realized that yes, I have paid some dues. This morning, the parish presented me with a certificate because I had mentioned to a friend that this is my fortieth year of working with choirs. More to the point, the youth choir sang me a song with lyrics they had written for the occasion.

Forty years. That is somewhere above two thousand Sundays. Plus weddings, funerals, revival meetings, Holy Weeks, Christmas Eves. And the practicing that goes with it.

That counts as “dues.” They are simply in a different school than the jazz club or the rock-and-roll band. I don’t know the jazz standards or the pop tunes, but I have learned a few hymn tunes along the way. I have not played in combos, which is where jazz skills are really developed (so far as I can tell), but I have been a part of a great many choral rehearsals, and I have collaborated with first-rate musicians and learned much from them, most recently Jean Littlejohn.

My Sunday morning piano improvisations are a continuing school, and the daily preparations for them the “homework.” I am grateful for my teachers, very glad to learn from these my fellow musicians, near and far.

Here is where I am on the journey:

All things bright and beautiful: Rogation Sunday 2017 (this morning).

I have put this on Soundcloud as an experiment. There are advantages – it is strictly audio, which saves me the most troublesome part of preparing a YouTube clip, which is locating pictures. I can post under a Creative Commons License. And you can download it, listen to it offline, put it on a CD, whatever you want to do with it. [Edited to add: I changed my profile name over there to "T. Andrew Hicks," because a Soundcloud search turns up a long list of other "Andrew Hickses", most of whom appear to be much younger than I, and who have a wide variety of musical interests.]

There will surely be disadvantages: I am limited to three hours of music without upgrading to a paid account. I note that as soon as I finished playing my track, it jumped immediately to another, by a pop musician named Travis Scott who appears to be “trending,” as they like to say. His work has no relation whatsoever to mine and I found the transition rather jarring. Clearly, Soundcloud would rather you listen to him than to me.

So it goes. As I read this week, “If you aren’t paying anything, you are not the customer. You are the product.”

In any event, my tentative plan is to put a few piano improvisations on Soundcloud, and leave other sorts of music (choral, organ) on YouTube. I want to be absolutely certain that no one can claim copyright on my Soundcloud material – as YouTube regularly does on any organ music I post, especially (for some reason) my playing of Bach. That lets someone else make money from ads. I do not like this.

Toward the end of today’s work on “All things,” I had a bit of extra “instruction” in the School of Improvisation. While moving my left hand up the piano, I accidentally struck an F natural (you can hear it at the 11’30” mark). In the key of D major.

Keith Jarrett said in the documentary that this is one of the hardest aspects of solo improvisations: whatever notes or ideas you play, you have to respond to them. I think the fear of such moments is what keeps many people from learning to improvise.

Well, you just go ahead and respond. I was limited by time, for I had to finish up within another minute or so, but I think I brought it around well enough. In retrospect, an analyst could say that it echoes the section earlier in the piece where I was in D minor. I can only say that I absolutely had no intention of doing that. And I can say that it made the ending more interesting – and better – than what I had intended. It does not always turn out that way – last week’s improvisation had some good music in places, but the bitonal direction the improvisation took in the middle was too jarring, and on the whole it proved to be not so good.

How do you learn to deal with such things? It comes in the practice sessions, when you are playing the tune for a half hour or longer at a time.

I had much trouble controlling this tune, so I was diligent this week, and made lots of “mistakes” along the way – and thus practiced working my way out of them.

I can well imagine young Keith Jarrett in that Poconos club making “mistakes” on new tunes as he learned them and working through them – in public – even though most of the public was paying no attention. That developed the skill and courage it took for him to walk onstage at places like Carnegie Hall, or the Royal Albert Hall, or La Scala with no preconception as to what he would do. Just him and the piano; sit down and play. For thirty or forty minutes, or an hour. An intermission, and a second improvisation. With a capacity audience, most of them enthusiasts who paid a lot for tickets, perhaps travelled far, expecting something miraculous like the Köln Concert. And the critics, who were often unkind to him.

I write in the past tense, for I learned that Jarrett no longer does extended concert improvisations of this sort. He had a physical/nervous breakdown in the late 1990’s, diagnosed as “chronic fatigue syndrome,” because these things were so hard on him. He took two years off entirely, and returned to the stage doing shorter-form pieces, jazz standards, etc.

Jarrett paid his classical dues as well, with a strong background in that area as a child prodigy, studying with Eleanor Sokoloff and others at the Curtis Institute before he got into jazz. He performed as a classical pianist for nearly thirty years alongside his other music-making.

I think I would like him. He is reclusive, living in an old farmhouse in New Jersey, the barn converted to a music studio. His life away from the piano is disciplined, simple, because he is all about the music. As I wish to be. What he would think of me is another matter; by most accounts he is notoriously prickly, and in general has a low opinion of classical musicians, probably lower still of church musicians, if he thinks of us at all.

It might be that we could find a point of contact in Bach. He has recorded the Goldberg Variations; I have performed them at least. He has likewise recorded both volumes of the Well-Tempered Clavier, plus the French and English Suites and other music. I have played quite a bit of the organ music, some of it this morning at the third service and more to come over the next two Sundays. He wrote in a liner note that "Bach is about ideas, not grand flourishes." I agree.

There are worse places to find common ground.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

A day with Howells

Make that three days. And more to come.

Sunday, May 14
The choir is to sing the Howells anthem “Let God arise.” (Here is a performance by the choir of Chichester Cathedral)
A setting of verses from Psalm 68, it fits the Sunday after the Ascension in Year A, which is May 28. We have been rehearsing it for several weeks now (with a degree of grumbling from the choir over its difficulty, and the prospect of attempting it on Memorial Day weekend), but I have not properly worked out the accompaniment. Now is the time: three hours this evening, sufficient to do the fingering for about two-thirds of it.

I know the sacred choral music of Howells fairly well, but had not encountered this anthem. It was in the pile of choral octavos left by my predecessor when he retired in 2000. Over the years, I have nibbled the disordered collection of single copies, mostly gathered by him at workshops and AAM conventions, from five filing boxes to one stack of less than two feet. One reason I have not simply recycled it all is that I occasionally find something like this: an anthem by Howells that is new to me. Reading through it a few months ago, I thought of the Sunday at the end of May, penciled it in, and ordered the copies.

It replaces a composition of my own, a setting of the enormous Genevan Psalter tune for Psalm 68, in my opinion perhaps the most magnificent of that Psalter and a favorite of the early Calvinists with its warlike ferocity. It is the one thing I have written that got a bit of play; through a chain of circumstances, it was performed at the inauguration of the president of the New Brunswick Theological Seminary, a place where the Genevan Psalter remained important, at least on that day many years ago. But the Howells is far better than anything I could write.

Howells, writing during the early days of the Second World War, knew about warlike ferocity all too well. He captures the antidote in the middle section of the anthem:
He is a Father of the fatherless, and defendeth the cause of the widows, even God in his holy habitation. He is the God that maketh men to be of one mind in an house; and bringeth the prisoners out of captivity.

Tuesday, May 16
A day mostly filled with meetings. I find ninety minutes to finish the fingering, my only music-related work of the day beyond a bit of improvisation at the piano.

Wednesday, May 17
My reaction to a first exposure to the music of Herbert Howells was akin to his reaction to the music of Vaughan Williams. It was not until graduate school – his name was not mentioned at all in my undergraduate music history courses, nor theory and composition. Nor, for that matter, was Vaughan Williams; it was as if British music ceased to exist after Purcell and Handel. But at the Choir College, I was able to hear the Choir of Men, Boys, and Girls at Trinity Church, Princeton – and they sang “Like as the hart.” I could not sleep that night, not after such music.

“What is this?” I thought. “How have I missed out on this, all these years?” It was as if it were from another world, a place of beauty and longing and aching remembrance of ages past.

I have since played some of his organ music – quite a bit of it, actually – and have been able to teach and direct a few of his anthems and service settings. For a while, I was a member of the Herbert Howells Society, my only foray into a professional society focused on the music of one composer. I was part of a rather short list of American members, most of them leaders in the musical world – people like Gerre Hancock and Bruce Neswick, with whom I did not properly belong. But I shared with them a love for this man’s musical voice.

And now, a fine large anthem to learn and teach. I spend two hours at the organ, working out registrations; it is ready for tonight’s rehearsal.

But it is not the only Howells of the day, for today we begin rehearsal on the Collegium Regale Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis for the RSCM Course. I had worried much over this, in combination with Britten’s “Rejoice in the Lamb” – will the two pieces (along with the rest of the list, including some shorter pieces that will be challenging) be too much for the Course? And with the large group we are bringing from our parish comes large responsibility – will these choristers, my own choristers whom I love and have sought to train, will they be up to the challenge? I spend another hour or so studying the score over midday dinner, learning it in order to teach it.

At the afternoon rehearsal, we begin with the Gloria. They sing through it with ease. We work through the rest of the Magnificat, backwards to the front, finishing with a straight sing-through. It is glorious.

It brought back another memory of the choir at Trinity Church, Princeton. One sunny January afternoon, I observed a Girls’ Choir rehearsal as they sight-read part of the Mozart Requiem. I so wanted to someday work with a choir like that.

Well, I do.

Today’s work, these dozen or so choristers standing around the piano and singing Howells, was the equal to what I remembered from that January day.

Soli Deo Gloria.

Afterword
We did not rehearse "Let God arise" with the organ after all; a severe thunderstorm kept the youth choir and others downstairs for a long while, a half-hour into the time scheduled for the adult rehearsal, and kept most of the adult choir away. We contented ourselves with work at the piano.

That leaves one rehearsal; next Wednesday. I am no longer worried about the Collegium Regale; now I am worried about "Let God arise." We shall see what happens.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

C. H. Lloyd (1849-1919)

Here are the second and third movements of Lloyd’s Sonata in D minor, played at choral evensong this past Sunday, May 7. The finale has some problems (including mistakes I made initially, and again when the passage repeated!), but I have posted it because Lloyd appears to have a very limited presence on YouTube.

He does, however, have a good biography at Wikipedia, and he was a distinguished musician in his generation. He succeeded Samuel Sebastian Wesley as organist of Gloucester Cathedral, where he taught Herbert Brewer, his successor (who in turn taught Herbert Howells), with later positions at Christ Church, Oxford, the Royal College of Music, and organist of the Chapel Royal. He was a close friend of Hubert Parry. According to Wikipedia, he enjoyed figure skating, cycling, boating, and golf.

Lloyd died “very suddenly” [Wikipedia] on his seventieth birthday in 1919. May he rest in peace.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Resistance wins the day

I have heard it called the “Facebook effect.” All of my “friends” post photos of their vacations to exotic places; I stay at home and work. They speak glowingly of their children, all of them beautiful and strong and intelligent; I am childless. Each of them has hundreds of “friends,” perhaps thousands; I have what seems like but a handful, and I know that most of them are acquaintances, not friends in any true sense. [Disclaimer: I deleted my Facebook account after the November election. That action has improved my quality of life.]

What is happening is, of course, that these other people are posting about the good things and not the bad, nor the humdrum routine of work and responsibility.

This Music Box is no exception. From these pages, one could get the idea that I am diligent, always striving to play the organ and piano a little better, regular with the Daily Office and prayer, organized and efficient, always faithful to my Lord. Would that it were so!

I begin things and never complete them. I waste time, lots of it. Good habits that I seek to establish wilt when the times are challenging, leaving only the bad habits (which seem invulnerable). When confronted with milk chocolate, I am as helpless as a junkie. Or doughnuts. Or pastries. I dare not keep such things at home, or in my office.

And there are days like yesterday.

I began well; by the grace of God, on this day (and most days) my habits carried me through the morning routines at home, and right on through Matins at church. But then it is my custom to brew some tea, sit down at the computer, and eat a second breakfast.

It is the most dangerous part of my day, and most of all on Fridays, when I generally have no fixed commitments.

My Rule of Life says to check e-mail, both church and personal, and deal with it while I eat. Then I check the Internet; the Rule says to do so quickly and efficiently, without getting bogged down or extending this beyond the time it takes me to eat. There are several blogs that I follow, plus some weekly newsletters. The two that are the most important to me are these:

Faith, Folk, and Charity

I have mentioned Fr. Tim Chesterton several times in the Music Box; he is an Anglican priest and pastor of a parish in Edmonton, Alberta. He is more of an Evangelical than I am, and he is a guitar-playing folk singer. Both of these qualities are good for me, for I am a Rite One Anglo-Catholic and an organist/choirmaster who can easily become narrow in his musical tastes. His blog includes his weekly sermons, which I love; they are down-to-earth, practical, Biblical. And they frequently include music. It was Fr. Tim who introduced me to Stan Rogers, for example. And Kate Rusby, featured in his current post.

Jesse’s Café Américain

It is a marvelous blend of financial, spiritual, and political commentary, and even (sometimes) music—like Fr. Tim, Jesse posts YouTube clips, tending toward jazz. One Christmas, he even posted one of mine; “O holy Night” from our Christmas Day service, with Ting Davidson on the violin. Jesse bills his site as “an oasis of civility in an increasingly uncivil world,” and begins with a header that is most often of spiritual nature – the current one is a quote from John Henry Newman.

As it happens, the current post (April 28) includes a passage that pertains to my topic for today:
Remember that salvation has been bought for us by the greatest love that one can receive, and that we should therefore take no pride in it. Rather, we are a child not of our own works or words but of mercy, and we are therefore expected, no we are commanded, to extend that mercy to others. As you judge, so shall you be judged.

To take pride in our position and status and knowledge in the manner of the Pharisees, and especially to abuse our faith as a platform for hatred, violence, and other offenses against others, is to sin against the Spirit. And this is the one sin that will not be easily forgiven.

This then is a purpose of suffering, that we may be kept safe from such a temptation to think so falsely of ourselves, and imagine ourselves to be what we are not. For it is in this disordered pride that the first sin found its mark.
This, in the middle of a commentary on the first quarter GDP numbers and the day’s price action in the financial markets.

At the bottom of his page are more quotes, and what I think is his motto: “Need little. Want less. Love more.”

But I digress.

Yesterday, it was Jesse’s Café that led me astray (I hasten to add, through no fault of its proprietor). In a sidebar, he offers “Matières à Réflexion,” a list of blogposts, news articles, essays, videos that he considers worth a look. On this day, one of them was a link to a New Yorker article: Rod Dreher’s monastic vision

And that consumed the rest of the day.

I read the (long) article, which sparked my interest in Dreher’s book, “The Benedictine Option.” That led me to his blog, which is (I gather) famous and widely read; the New Yorker article says he gets around a million page views per month.

I disagree with many of his stances, but I agree with many others. He writes well, and prolifically; he posts daily, often at considerable length. As often happens when I discover a blog, I read and read some more, and then more. Much about the “Benedictine Option.” And politics. And the Orthodox church, and Catholicism. The New Yorker describes it well – “orthodox Christianity, religious freedom, the ‘L.G.B.T. agenda,’ the hypocrisy of privileged liberals, the nihilism of secular capitalism, the appeal of monasticism, the spiritual impoverishment of modernity, brisket—while sharing candid, emotional stories about his life.”

When I started, it was about 10:00. Before I knew it, it was nearly noon.

That was bad enough. Round One goes to Resistance.
[Resistance] takes many forms: procrastination, fear, self-medication, drugs/alcohol/junk food, cruelty to others and to self, wasting time with television/internet, criticism of others, the fear of criticism from others…

It is universal; everyone faces it, every day. Resistance especially abhors “the pursuit of any calling in writing, painting, music, film, dance, or any creative art… any diet or health regimen… any program of spiritual advancement… education of every kind… any act of political, moral, or ethical courage…” (p. 5 and 6, where Pressfield lists eleven such activities). Resistance hates these things, and will do anything to “shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work.”
I said the Midday Office and went upstairs to my proper duties. Or I tried: I set the hymn boards and prepared my hymnals for the weekend’s services. But it was cold in the church, the fruit of a cold, rainy day. I knew that I must practice; Sunday loomed ahead, and Choral Evensong next weekend.

I was cold and tired, still not fully recovered from Holy Week and the hard week that followed. I knew that if I could just change my shoes and get on the bench, I might be all right.

But I could not bring myself to do it.

“It is dinnertime. I can practice after I eat.” I retired to my nice cozy office, brewed some more tea, set out my food. And returned to Mr. Dreher’s blog, which I found compelling.

One o’clock passed. Then two o’clock. “I must practice,” I thought. But it was so cold upstairs, and dark. The thought of going up there was more than I could handle. “Just a little more; I might as well finish this up.” Three o’clock.

Now, it was time to go home; no practicing for me today. The very thing for which I was made, and placed here to do for the glory of God and (hopefully) the benefit of His people, and I spend five hours on the Internet instead of attending to it.
Resistance’s goal is not to wound or disable. Resistance aims to kill. Its target is the epicenter of our being: our genius, our soul, the unique and priceless gift we were put on earth to give and that no one else has but us. Resistance means business. When we fight it, we are in a war to the death. (Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art” p. 15, quoted here.)
Not only did I fail in this, but I equally failed to do work that was available to me – and pressing – in my nice cozy office. Five hours.

There is nothing for it but repentance and amendment of life. Conversion of life, as the Benedictines would say:
Redeem thy misspent time that’s past
And live this day as if thy last.
Improve thy talent with due care;
For the great day thyself prepare.
(Thomas Ken)
It will be all right. Pressfield says elsewhere “One bad day is nothing. Ten bad days are nothing. You are in this for the long haul.” I am well-prepared for this Sunday—that is part of what opened the door for Resistance, for Necessity was not wielding its whip to press me forward at it had during the fortnight leading up to Easter. It is next Sunday’s Evensong that may suffer.

Today has been much better. For one thing, I dressed more warmly, and that made it easier to get on the bench in what was (again) a cold, dark church when I started. What I face is nothing; the old-time churches were not heated at all, and that did not deter the likes of Bach and Buxtehude and Franck and Bruckner from their work.

I am not going to purchase Mr. Dreher’s book; I read enough of his blog to see that I would probably enjoy it, but despite its title and premise, it offers little that would be new to me. I am pleased that a book about the Rule of Benedict and Christian life together is a best-seller (number seven on the NY Times list). But I already own at least two books that I think cover some of the same ground, about how to live as a Christian in a world that is coming unglued: Marva Dawn’s “Unfettered Hope,” which will never be a best-seller but may be a better book than Dreher’s. And from a world that was genuinely and totally unglued in a way I hope to never see: “Life together” (D. Bonhoeffer). Or I can go to the source: the Rule of Benedict itself.

I will not give up the Internet, though Dreher’s counsel of periodic “fasting” from the Net and related media is well-taken. On the whole, the things I have read on the Net have educated me and made me a better person—even a better musician—and it was through discussion forums (and this Music Box and its predecessor on LiveJournal) that I learned to write.

But it is dangerous. It is my greatest weakness, and requires more vigilance than I gave it yesterday.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Martin How and the RSCM


Here is a setting of the Evening Canticles by Martin How, the only setting I know that uses the American BCP’s “Rite Two” text.

I cannot pretend to write properly about Martin How; a beginning might be made at Wikipedia and a bit more may be found in the online archives of the RSCM. But not enough. My point of contact with him was the Chorister Training Scheme. When I began RSCM work in the 1980’s, it was with Mr. How’s “little blue cards” (and red, for the Chorister level), with the slender handbook explaining how to use them. I still have the handbook, and still refer to it for the wisdom condensed into its 38 pages. In a manner that I gather was typical of him, How’s name does not appear anywhere in this volume, or on the CTS materials. Instead he explains: “What is presented here is not an entirely new approach, but the bringing together of ideas and experience which have proved successful.”

Indeed they have. Times have changed since the 1950’s and 60’s when he developed the Scheme, and the RSCM’s training materials have changed – and not always, in my opinion, for the better. But Mr. How’s “bringing together of ideas and experience” have been in some respects the foundation of my life’s work. I believe that if Mr. How were to walk into this afternoon’s Youth Choir rehearsal in our parish – and most certainly were he to slip into a rehearsal at the St. Louis RSCM Course this summer – he would immediately recognize what we are doing.

I am grateful for musicians such as Mr. How who, despite the commitments of an active musical life, find the time to teach others how to do the work, by written and spoken words and most of all by example.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Antiphonies, and living up to one's models

For tonight's evensong, I played "Antiphonies" by William Mathias. Like the Vaughan Williams Prelude and Fugue that I played recently, Mathias is another composer whom I respect; it was an honor to learn a significant organ work of his composition.

I normally do not listen to YouTube performances of music that I am practicing; I want to develop my own sense of the piece. But once I have played it, then it is very useful to listen to the versions of others, especially the great masters. It shows what I have done well, and where I must continue to work.

Here is how the work should sound. It is from a recording by John Scott, for whom Mathias wrote the piece in the 1980's, played at St. Paul's, London. The performance is full of energy, sparkling and colorful. Compared to this, my rendition comes off as a shabby street-urchin, full of wrong notes. What is a musician to do? We cannot play at the level of the great ones; we can only do the best we can.

There are reasons why I stand by my performance and do not hang my head in shame:
- I cannot imagine who else would play this piece in this town; it is somewhat obscure. Even Mr. Scott's YouTube version has fewer than twenty views, and there is only one other YouTube version that I can find, a fine recording by Timothy Byram-Wigfield at Winchester Cathedral. If I don't play it, it would not be heard in live performance, not here and not by these people.
- It fit the occasion of Evensong for the Fifth Sunday in Lent better than anything else I could contemplate, with its use of the Passion Sunday plainsong "Vexilla regis."
- My version of the Mathias shows how the piece works on a small instrument in a small room, very different from St. Paul's.
- One of the major differences between my version and Mr. Scott's is the tempo of the faster sections. I think that my tempi are appropriate for our mechanical action instrument; I would play the piece faster on an electric action, but I think that my version hangs together effectively.
- It may be that I bring a different perspective to the piece. Not better, mind you, but different, perhaps throwing a different light on the work.
- I am sure that Mr. Mathias would be happy for someone in the middle of Iowa to be playing this piece in 2017, thirty-five years after its 1982 premiere.
- Working on it has made me a better organist. Working on any good music does that.

I could say the same about the Anthem: a setting of "Ah, holy Jesus" by John Ferguson, for choir with solo viola. We sang it well, but we cannot approach the silken perfection of the St. Olaf Choir recording directed by the composer. I do, however, think that we matched them for Connection and intensity, and the same arguments apply as listed above.

In due time, I may post our versions of the Mathias and the Ferguson on YouTube. I cannot do so at present because of some computer issues.
[Edited April 29: Here is the Mathias.]


Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Ralph Vaughan Williams

My admiration for this composer knows no bounds. No, it is more than admiration: Love. When I hear certain of his works, I melt: the Fantasia on a Theme of Tallis. The Lark Ascending. Any number of places in his many symphonic works. The anthem “Lord, thou hast been our refuge.” The setting of the Old Hundredth Psalm Tune, sung as the Princess Elizabeth entered the Abbey for her coronation: the YouTube link here is from the Fiftieth Anniversary of that day.

As the young and still mostly unknown Music Editor for the English Hymnal (1906), it fell to him to compose four tunes, needed to fit texts that were to be in the book. All remain in use; three of the four are indispensable:

- Down Ampney (Come down, O love divine)
- Randolph (God be with you till we meet again)
- Salve feste dies (Hail thee, festival day)
And most of all:
- Sine nomine (For all the saints)
[See this.
And this.]

Other tunes followed in later books, especially Kings Weston (At the Name of Jesus). But more even than these tunes, it was his philosophy of hymn singing, rooted in his love and knowledge of English folksong, that took English hymnody out of the nineteenth century propriety of Victorian chapel and music room into the fresh air. For, as I think he discovered when he began working with hymn tunes, the best of the Old Tunes are a type of folk music, rooted in the faith of common people – not the theologians or clergy – who know that God is with them come what may.

He wrote:
The task of providing congregations with familiar tunes is difficult; for, unfortunately, many of the tunes of the present day [that is, 1906]… are quite unsuitable to their purpose. More often than not they are positively harmful to those who sing and hear them…

The usual argument in favour of bad music is that the fine tunes are doubtless ‘musically correct’, but that the people want ‘something simple’. Now the expression ‘musically correct’ has no meaning: the only ‘correct’ music is that which is beautiful and noble. As for simplicity, what could be simpler than ‘St. Anne’ or ‘The Old Hundredth’, and what could be finer?

It is indeed a moral rather than a musical issue. No doubt it requires a certain effort to tune oneself to the moral atmosphere implied by a fine melody; and it is far easier to dwell in the miasma of the languishing and sentimental hymn tunes which so often disfigure our services. Such poverty of heart may not be uncommon, but at least it should not be encouraged by those who direct the services of the Church… (Preface to the English Hymnal, pp. viii-ix)

Vaughan Williams wrote little for my instrument. There are the Three Preludes on Welsh Hymn Tunes (1920) which I have played many times over all the decades of my career – Bryn Calfaria, Rhosymedre, Hyfrydol. There is the little “Wedding Tune for Ann.” There are two more Preludes on Welsh songs (1956) -- Romanza: The White Rock (which I have not played) and the Toccata: St. David’s Day (which I have, and must play again; it makes a fine energetic postlude)

And there is this:
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Prelude and Fugue in C minor

The above recording is from my noontime recital on March 8. I have owned the score for many years. I have looked at it several times. And I have laid it aside: “I don’t have time to learn this, not now. Maybe next year.” The one-and-only large-scale work for organ by this composer whom I love, and I had never played it.

For me, the number of “next years” dwindles. I felt that it had to be now, so I programmed it for an Evensong last fall – and (as I had warned myself all those years) I ran out of time. I was able to prepare only the Prelude, finding myself tangled in knots with the two-against-three of the Fugue. That determined me to make it the centerpiece of the March recital, and I managed to work it up, some of the fugue falling into place only in the final days of preparation.

I do not know that I will play this piece again. But I am grateful that I have finally grappled with it. I have learned much. And I am honored that I can in my small way keep his music – this little and somewhat obscure corner of his work, at that – in living performance. I hope that my March 8 playing of it may bear fruit in some manner, but that is up to our Lord.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Ignition

Christianity is caught, not taught. (old RSCM saying)
In “The Talent Code” [see the previous essay], Daniel Coyle writes that what he calls “ignition” is “the set of signals and unconscious forces that create our identity; the moments that lead us to say ‘this is what I want to be’” (p. 108, author’s emphasis). It is the realization that “I’d better get busy” (p. 111), and it is often a sense of wanting to belong to a group: “Those people over there are doing something terrifically worthwhile” (p. 108). It is what Steven Pressfield calls “Turning Pro.”

Coyle is speaking of music, athletics, and other endeavors of the sort that demand the effort of “deep practice” and years of commitment. This is all very true; it is one reason that I take choristers to the RSCM summer course in St. Louis. I hope that for some of them, it will be a defining event. It is one reason that when we are doing something big for our parish at home, such as the Beethoven chorus from “Mount of Olives” a year ago, or “Worthy is the Lamb” from Messiah, I seek to include the youth choir. For some of them, singing such music might be the key that unlocks their vocation.

But music and athletics are not the only things that demand effort and long-term commitment, nor are they the most important:
And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. (St. Matthew 4:19)
St. Clare of Assisi is a good example. She heard and saw Francis, and as Coyle would say, she thought “this is what I want to be.” The fire burned strongly enough in her to overcome every obstacle.

How can we live in such a way as to ignite such a flame in those around us? How can our parishes become places that will cause people to think that “Those people over there are doing something terrifically worthwhile?” This is the center point of evangelism. No amount of talk will do it.

One of our teenage choristers showed up at this morning's warmup rehearsal with a friend. I could have told her to sit out in the congregation while her friend sang in the choir, and come to our next rehearsal if she wanted to sing. That would have been sensible, and would have respected the rehearsal time that the other choristers had put into their work. But I knew that this girl was a singer, and the moment would have passed by the next rehearsal. So I invited her to put on a vestment and sing with us. Perhaps nothing will come of it. Or perhaps it might be a beginning.

We need a lot more of this.

See also this, from my online friend Tim Chesterton:
“What does discipleship look like?”

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For those who are nearby, I am playing a noontime recital at the Congregational Church on Wednesday, March 8, starting at noon. Here is my program, with notes (I have spent much of the evening writing them). There is a lot of work ahead: I have struggled with the Vaughan Williams fugue, applying my “deep practice” methods to it and finally completing a First and Second Workout. It took so long that I have neglected its prelude (which I played in December, but which needs to be practiced). One of the Messiaen movements is new to me, and starting to frighten me. It is fingered, but must be learned by next Sunday, when it is to be the postlude. To say nothing of March 8, about ten days from now. Jesu juva.

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Prelude and Fugue in C minor (Ralph Vaughan Williams)

Four movements from Livre du Saint Sacrement (Olivier Messiaen)
1. Adoro te (I adore thee)
2. la source de Vie (the source of Life)
3. le Dieu caché (the hidden God)
6. la manne et le Pain de Vie (the manna and the Bread of Life)

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Notes:

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) was a towering influence in British musical life through the first half of the twentieth century. Although he was a prolific composer, he wrote little for the organ; today’s work, the Prelude and Fugue in C minor, is the most substantial of his organ works. He wrote it in 1921, revised it in 1923 and again in 1930, when he also arranged it for orchestra.

The prelude is in rondo form, with the principal theme and its massive chords separated by two quieter, flowing sections. The fugue is characterized by constant two-against-three motion, established immediately by its subject and countersubject, building to a grand conclusion. Both movements are colored by modal and pentatonic harmonies, as is characteristic of much of his music.


Olivier Messiaen (1908-92) was equally significant in the musical life of France in the twentieth century. His music strikes many as strange. I believe that this is accurate; it is strange because it is holy. Two key elements appear constantly: birdsong and color. None of his music, aside from one unaccompanied motet, is “liturgical.” He considered that the only acceptable liturgical music is plainsong. While Messiaen occasionally quoted plainsong, he preferred to quote birds, considering them to be the greatest of musicians. An avid amateur ornithologist, he transcribed their songs into notation in the field wherever he traveled, and incorporated them into virtually all of his music from the 1960’s onward.

In my opinion, Messiaen can be compared only with J. S. Bach in his ability to depict matters of faith by means of music. Yet, Messiaen would be the first to say, as he wrote in the preface to his “Quartet for the End of Time,” that “All this is simply striving and childish stammering if one compares it to the overwhelming grandeur of the subject.”

Livre du Saint Sacrement (Book of the Blessed Sacrament) was his final composition for the organ, commissioned by the American Guild of Organists for their national convention in Detroit, 1986. In eighteen movements with a duration of about an hour and a half, it is an extended meditation on the central mystery of the Christian faith.

The cycle begins with Adoro te. Messiaen writes: “[the first three movements are] acts of adoration to the Christ who is invisible, but genuinely present in the Blessed Sacrament.” Adoro te is quiet, warm,and sensuous. Messiaen draws the title from the first words of a hymn by Thomas Aquinas: "Humbly I adore thee, Verity unseen…" See also Colossians 1:15: “He is the image of the invisible God…”

la Source de Vie is gentle, a quiet depiction of the Water of Life. Messiaen quotes St. Bonaventure: “My heart is ever thirsting for you, O fountain of life, source of the eternal light!”

le Dieu caché juxtaposes a plainsong Alleluia; a unison melody as a reply to it; the song of the bird Onycognathus tristrami (Tristram’s grackle, notated by Messiaen at Engedi, between Masada and the Dead Sea); and a slow descending chordal figure, like a meditation. These are presented in block form, each element extended as it reappears. Near the end, we hear the song of Hippolais pallida (Olivaceous Warbler, notated at Lod, near modern-day Tel Aviv.) Messiaen quotes:
My eyes could not bear to behold the splendor of your glory. It is with regard for my weakness that you veil yourself in the Sacrament. (from "The Imitation of Christ," Book IV, chapter 11)

On the Cross only the divinity was hidden. But here [in the Sacrament] is hidden also the Humanity. In confessing and believing both, I ask that which the repentant thief asked. (St. Thomas Aquinas, from the hymn Adoro te)

In la manne et le Pain de Vie, the sounds are those of a desert, with silences and waiting, and frightening things scurrying about, and the calls of two birds, both native to the deserts of Judea: Oenanthe lugens (Mourning Chat) and Ammomanes deserti (Desert Lark). Again he uses block form, extending each musical element as it reappears. The movement ends in repose, with a final two measures that could be from Debussy. Messiaen quotes:
You gave your people food of angels, and without their toil you supplied them from heaven with bread ready to eat, providing every pleasure and suited to every taste. For your sustenance manifested your sweetness toward your children; and the bread, ministering to the desire of the one who took it, was changed to suit everyone's liking. (Wisdom 16:20-21)

The life that Christ gives us by communion is all of his life, with the special graces he has deserved, living for us each of his mysteries. (Dom Columba Marmion, “Christ in His Mysteries,” chapter 18)

I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world. (John 6:51)

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Talent Code

The Talent Code (Daniel Coyle, Bantam Books 2009)
The Little Book of Talent (ibid., 2012)


Upon a recommendation in an online forum, I read “The Talent Code” and followed that up with “The Little Book of Talent.” For the purposes of the Music Box, the part that is of greatest interest is Coyle’s description of what he calls “Deep Practice,” chapter 4 of “Talent Code.” In most respects, it is the way that I practice, described in a previous essay.

Coyle describes how the method works. What we normally call “talent” is the growth of myelin sheathing around neurons, which strengthens the circuitry of any action or thought that is repeated a lot.

The way to build this sheathing is repetition – but not mindlessly, playing a scale or exercise hundreds of times in a row, as one of my teachers had me do for a semester. Coyle writes: “With conventional practice, more is always better…. Deep practice, however, doesn’t obey the same math. Spending more time is effective – but only if you’re still in the sweet spot at the edge of your capabilities, attentively building and honing circuits” (p. 88). Coyle describes this earlier in the book; he finds that the “sweet spot” is at the edge of one’s ability, making a few mistakes and immediately attending to them (chapter 1).

I would emphasize that it is a FEW mistakes in the initial slow playing of the phrase. For me, that is the guide as to whether my practice is sufficiently slow. If there are absolutely no mistakes, I am not pushing hard enough; it seems important that there be some struggle to get it right, so it cannot be so slow as to be playable without focus, and Coyle would agree with this; in “The Little Book” he says to “Embrace Struggle.” In this playthrough, I stop immediately at every mistake, think about it for a moment, and play it again, perhaps just the one or two notes leading to the mistake and this time getting it right. If I cannot, I slow it down further, even take it entirely out of rhythm to move carefully from one note to the next (I often have to do this when learning Messiaen).

I should be taking a tempo where, with the work described above, the second playthrough is perfect. And the third. If not, I need to slow down, or possibly take a smaller chunk of music – a half-phrase, one measure, even down to a couple of beats or less, whatever feels like a single manageable “chunk”. The goal (with which I think Coyle would agree) is a perfect playing of the phrase, measure, or other short passage, which is then repeated perfectly. I never leave a phrase until it is as perfect as I can make it, even on the first day’s practice of it.

More than that, the passage is repeated perfectly the next day, and the day after. Coyle writes that the growth of myelin is a slow process, taking days or weeks.

As Coyle writes, this is why regular practice is essential. “Causing skill to evaporate… only requires that you stop a skilled person from systematically firing his or her circuit for a mere thirty days…. Myelin… is living tissue. Like everything else in the body, it’s in a constant cycle of breakdown and repair. That’s why daily practice matters, particularly as we get older” (p. 88)

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There is lots of good material about teaching and coaching in Part Three of “Talent Code” (p. 156 and following). One insight that is especially helpful for me with my struggles with improvisation was his comparison of the training of young Brazilian soccer players with the Suzuki method. Coyle thinks that “skills like soccer, writing, and comedy are flexible-circuit skills…. Playing violin, golf, gymnastics, and figure skating, on the other hand, are consistent-circuit skills, depending utterly on a solid foundation of technique that enables us to reliably re-create the fundamentals of an ideal performance” (p. 194).

I have spent most of my life learning and playing organ and piano repertoire. In Coyle’s terms, that is “consistent-circuit” work. That is why every mistake must be immediately eliminated by slow practice.

But piano (and organ) improvisation is the opposite – it is more of a “flexible-circuit” skill. In describing the Brazilian coach who (on the surface) is simply letting the kids play scrimmages with very little instruction, Coyle writes “To stop the game in order to highlight some technical detail or give praise would be to interrupt the flow of attentive firing, failing, and learning that is the heart of flexible-circuit deep practice” (p. 194 – in another place, he likens it to a baby learning to walk).

“The ideal soccer circuitry is varied and fast, changing fluidly in response to each obstacle, capable of producing a myriad of possible options that can fire in liquid succession: now this, this, this, and that. Speed and flexibility are everything…” (p. 193)

That is Thelonious Monk playing the tune for two hours without losing the groove. That is why, in an improvisation – even in practice – you use the mistakes to take you to a different place than you intended and you most certainly do not stop, go back, and fix them.

Yes, you make mistakes. And yes, you must fix them – just as the soccer players must learn to move the ball, to make passes, to hit their shots, and they will work on drills to isolate specific moves and skills often breaking each move into its components, very much like Mike Garson’s little fifteen or thirty second “etudes.” But the fixing of mistakes in a soccer scrimmage is of quite a different sort from the work that one does with slow practice, a phrase at a time, of Bach or Messiaen, and the practice method must likewise differ. You don’t bother with that particular mistake in that moment at all; instead, you think about how you might avoid going in that direction the next time, or (in practice) take another swing at it in the next variation through the tune, and see if you can get a better sound.

That is one reason improvisation is so scary for traditionally-trained classical musicians. It goes against everything we have learned about how to make music, if we have been careful in our approach to the repertoire. I have a lot to learn about this, and am grateful for Coyle’s insight into it.

I wrote of this mode of practicing recently, as well.

What about choral singing? There are many directors who work in the “precise” way, what I call the Robert Shaw approach – he would carefully mark a copy of the choral score, place it on reserve in the library, and expect every singer to have every marking before the first rehearsal, and adhere to them precisely. Every cutoff was defined as a precise rhythm, every possible detail was specified.

There are times when this is needed, but I am more of the other school: I want the singers to use their individual musical judgement as much as possible. I would be happiest if they were singing with perfect ensemble by listening attentively to one another, without me. We sometimes come close to this with psalmody.

In the next essay, I hope to discuss another of Coyle’s concepts: Ignition. But a closing thought for today – “Deep practice tends to leave people exhausted.” (footnote, p. 89). This explains my physical and mental collapses after every major undertaking, such as the Fourth Week of Advent described a few pages back. I should be kinder to myself and accept that this is simply how it is, not a personal failure of discipline.

And what about this, from St. Paul: “Bodily exercise profiteth little, but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come.” (I Timothy 4:8)

Ought we not to put as much effort into “spiritual exercise” as the bodily form, and engage in spiritual practice as well as musical? How do we do this? The details surely differ, but some of the same disciplines apply. William Law’s suggestion is apt:

It would be easy to show… how little and small matters are the first steps and natural beginnings of great perfection. But the two things which, of all others, most want to be under a strict rule, and which are the greatest blessings both to ourselves and others, when they are rightly used, are our time and our money. These talents are continual means and opportunities of doing good. He that is piously strict, and exact in the wise management of either of these, cannot be long ignorant of the right use of the other. (from “A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life”)

“Little and small matters…” This sounds like the musician taking a single phrase, bringing it to perfection by attending to every detail of it in slow, careful practice.

Habits result from the myelination process, every bit as much as Skills. “We are what we repeatedly do,” wrote Will Durant. At more length:
Excellence is an art won by training and habituation: we do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have these because we have acted rightly; “These virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions” [from Aristotle]; we are what we repeatedly do. [from “The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the Great Philosophers,” quoted here.]

This is one reason that I pray the Daily Office. It is but a first step, but it is at least that. And, like the learning of Music, it is not going to happen without daily repetition. And perhaps, spiritual exercise means working at what Coyle calls the “sweet spot” referred to above: “at the edge of one’s ability, making a few mistakes and immediately attending to them.”

When dealing with such matters as love for one’s neighbor or telling the truth under all circumstances, the “mistakes” are certain. It is the immediate attention to them that is the challenge.

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I have posted two more YouTube clips. This one is a followup to the previous essay; it is today’s improvisation for which I began preparation on Tuesday.
Improvisation for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany

This one is from our choir: a psalm setting by David Hurd. The organ part is a passacaglia, an eight-bar ground-bass.
Teach me, O Lord (David Hurd)

As I wrote above, my next essay continues with material from Daniel Coyle’s book, on what he calls “Ignition.” I will say here that I owe David Hurd for some of my own “ignition” as an organist.

On my first Sunday morning as a freshman at Duke, I was with the Chapel Choir (which was open to all comers for the first week or so, while auditions took place). Mind you, my little Baptist church back home was not quite so fine as the Duke Chapel – indeed, nothing had prepared me for processing down that aisle with the Choir – while David Hurd, chapel organist (only for a brief time, perhaps just that one year if I remember rightly) played what I learned was the Bach Prelude in B minor.

I had no idea that such music existed. Obviously, I knew of Bach; I had played many things from the Well Tempered Clavier by this time. But I had never heard any of his organ music, nor had I ever heard or seen a pipe organ.

At the time, nothing changed. I failed to pass the Choir's audition, and failed again my sophomore year, making me determined in my career as a choral director to never have the sort of choir where people must pass an audition to get in. I laid aside choral music, pretty much quit going to church, proceeded with my major in piano performance, and did not take organ lessons. Nonetheless, in retrospect I think that it was that Sunday morning when the seed was planted.

Dr. Hurd, should you read this: thank you. Thank you for taking your work as an organist seriously, and playing real literature for a run-of-the-mill church service in late August.

We never know where our music-making might lead, or what effect it may have on its listeners.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Improvisation Practice: an Example

Here is an example of how I begin my improvisatory work for the week. My purpose is to take the tune “Fifths” (Sally Ann Morris, with a fine text by the Mennonite author and pastor Adam Tice, “If Jesus is come”) and practice it with my version of Thelonious Monk’s method as described by Mike Garson:
I continue working with the Mike Garson online masterclass, mentioned a few weeks ago. One of his ideas takes “Know the Tune” to a higher level. He quotes the jazz pianist Thelonious Monk: take one tune. Set the metronome (he suggests setting it to play on beats two and four of the measure, and if you are new to this, set a fairly slow tempo), and play the tune. For two hours. You can play whatever notes may happen; you certainly should vary it, add chords or countermelodies, move it to different keys, whatever occurs to you. But don’t lose the groove; stay with that click. For two hours.

It is often good to take the same tune again the next day: he had one of his students play “Autumn Leaves” in this manner for two weeks, two hours a day. One thinks of the disciplines of the Desert Fathers or the Zen masters.
Here, I play for barely over twenty minutes and without metronome, but it is enough to demonstrate the method. As I said in the linked essay, I cannot justify two hours of this, not with my other duties. Most days, I aim for a half-hour, more or less.

It is a tune with which I am not very familiar, so I must learn it. Thus, the example begins with me playing the tune in unison, in the written key (C minor), and singing along with solfege. Here is how it goes from there:

- 1’50” – start adding counterpoint
- 3’50” – a new key (G minor)
- 6’20” – and another (F minor). I did not intend it so at the time, but as it transpired, I stay in F minor for almost ten minutes, because I found it challenging to control the tune in this key.
- 8’35” – becoming more free
- 13’30” – quieter
- 14’50” – to F major (sort of). I like this passage.
- 15’40” – time to head back for tonic: transition
- 16’45” – Tonic. C minor.
- 17’50” – what jazzmen would call the “Head” – a simple playthrough of the tune very much in the manner in which I “started” (that is, about the two minute mark when I began adding counterpoint). Once through, then:
- 18’15” – Coda. It ends up rather big and dissonant.


It follows the pattern that Mike Garson suggested: I have to work through some of my more standard ways of playing such things, but it eventually starts to become more interesting, perhaps around the eight minute mark. By the end, I have discovered things about this tune I would not have expected, such as the F major passage (14’50”) and the rather harsh coda.

Some of this may end up in Sunday’s prelude improvisation. For now, I am not making any specific intention about it.

I have more to say on this: another day.

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The text and tune are available in Adam Tice’s fine collection “Stars like grace” (2013) They are not in Hymnary.org, which implies that they have yet to appear in any hymnals.