Saturday, October 13, 2018

Spark Joy

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing (2014)
Spark Joy (2016)

(Both books are by Marie Kondo, or "KonMarie," her nickname and how I think of her.)
KonMarie.com

I’ve done it. Close to a year of KonMarie, of decluttering and organizing. The last bits were this morning, and I am taking a few hours to celebrate.

The essence: surround yourself with things that spark joy. That means keeping some things, and disposing of a great many things – for me, somewhere between half and two-thirds of my possessions. Junk. Old files. Several hundred blank 3-1/2” floppies. CDs and cassettes that have been a part of my life, but no longer spark joy. Books. Lots of books.

I did it by the book, or rather books: I read the first one (frugally, from a library copy), then the second (likewise, a library e-book in this case – twice, once when I began and again in the last fortnight to gather courage for the Final Steps).

Here is a summary from her website:
Rule 1: Commit yourself to tidying up.
Rule 2: Imagine your ideal lifestyle.
Rule 3: Finish discarding first.
Rule 4: Tidy by category, not by location.
Rule 5: Follow the right order.
Rule 6: Ask yourself if it sparks joy.

Three of the categories:
Clothing, because it is easiest. For me especially, this was a no-brainer. I don’t have a lot of clothing and wear most of it regularly, so the whole process took less than an hour.

Books. This was scary. As per instructions, I took down all of my books. Every one of them. I piled them in the middle of the floor; this pretty much filled two rooms at home, and my office plus two tables in the choir room when I repeated the process at church. My wife was about ready to pull the plug on the whole enterprise, for she doubtless had visions of walking around piles of books for weeks and months, if not forever. But she has been after me for years to “get rid of some books,” as I reminded her.

Pick up a book. Hold it in both hands. Sense whether it sparks joy; if so, it goes in one pile. If not, the other pile. Sheep and goats at the last judgement. Like many people, I had trouble grasping the concept of “spark joy,” so (as per instructions) I started with something for which there was no doubt: my Ballentine paperback edition of “The Lord of the Rings,” which I have read maybe a dozen times. Joy flooded my soul as I held these little volumes, along with “The Hobbit,” given to me by my sister.
The Road goes ever on and on;
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone
And I must follow, if I can…
I got the idea.

From there it went quickly, more or less: two ten-hour days at home, one at my church office. Plus the physical labor of boxing up the discards and hauling them to the conveniently-timed Shelter House Booksale, three trips with my little Prius C filled to capacity.

The biggest challenge, once I got started, was avoiding the temptation to sit down and read. No matter how tempting, put it down and pick up the next book. Otherwise my wife and I would still be walking around piles of books on the floor.

And on it goes: Papers, with multiple trips to the recycling center. “Komono” (Japanese for “Other Stuff”) – a day when I almost filled the apartment complex’s dumpster all by myself.

Last of all: Sentimental Items. Personal letters, keepsakes, photos. It was for this that I re-read “Spark Joy,” for I have lived long and gathered many such things over the years. KonMarie suggests that this step is last because it is the most difficult, and one must hone one’s discernment before attempting it.

She is right.

But she is also right about the benefit: working through such things is a way of coming to terms with one’s past, and it is powerful. The recital program from my musical debut: a piece called “Off to Camp” in my first year at the piano. Working my way down the page of the annual programs from little pieces with the beginners to Beethoven sonatas as the finales of the group recitals my last two years of high school, and the senior recital with three of my friends. An official-looking paper from the county Board of Education, certifying me as a Third Class Musician (this in the eighth grade; there are many who would still give me that label). More recitals at college, in churches, at graduate school. Academic things that dangerously sparked pride, such as a National Merit Scholarship and later a perfect score on the GREs, which doubtless helped my admission prospects at the Choir College – as I wrote elsewhere, the dean who interviewed me was extremely dubious as to my prospects, since I was self-taught as an organist. He said so in my letter of acceptance, which I kept. Notes from choristers young and old. Going-away memorials when I moved from one place to another. The one that brought tears to my eyes most of all was a sheet of paper I had quite forgotten from the little Baptist church I served after undergraduate school, where I began as a pianist and left as an organist, and discovered Choral Conducting. I will quote part of it:
The following people send you $451.00 worth of good wishes as you move further in your music career. We have a few requests:
- That you never forget us
- That you send someone in the church your new address.
- That you will come back sometime. Remember the latch string will always be outside.

It was then signed by about sixty persons and groups (such as “The Choir” and several of the Sunday School classes), which was pretty much the whole congregation.
I mused on the fact that $451.00 was a lot of money for those people in that time and place, and how much they loved me.

If that doesn’t spark joy, nothing will.

-------------------
KonMarie tells us that we must thank our possessions before discarding any of them. That helped, especially with the books. I thanked each of them individually for what they had taught me, what they had meant to me. We should thank the things we keep as well, such as thanking our clothes as we hang them up at the end of the day or put them in the laundry. We should take care of the things we have, and always put them back into their proper place.

I get a little nervous about the theology of thanking the spirit(s) that reside in created things, and would prefer to thank the Maker, but I think of it in the way one considers the Holy Icons – in this sense, every created thing is a window into the divine and deserves an appropriate degree of respect. I have started greeting my little Prius with a bow every morning before I begin my commute and thanking it at the end of the day.
[The cellarer of the monastery] will regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar, aware that nothing is to be neglected. He should not be prone to greed, nor be wasteful or extravagant with the goods of the monastery, but should do everything with moderation… (Rule of St. Benedict 31:10-12)
I believe that KonMarie would be in full agreement with this. One final quote:
If you are uncertain whether to keep it, ask your heart.
If you don’t where to put it, ask your home.
--------------
Afterword:
Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (St. Matthew 6:21)
Be not overly attached to the things that "spark joy" in your heart. Respect them, use them well and with care, even love them. Above all, be thankful for them. But do not set your heart on them. That is not the path of life.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Sweet Hour of Prayer

It has been a long time since I have posted any music online.
Here is a piano improvisation on the Gospel song “Sweet hour of prayer,” from September 30. I played it twice that morning, at our 9:00 and 11:00 services: this is the earlier (and better) version. I considered posting both of them so that the listener could see how two improvisations on the same theme, played only a couple of hours apart, differ. But one is enough, and my (free) SoundCloud space is limited.

Singing the hymn elicited a lot of feedback, about equally divided between positive and negative. For some, it was profoundly moving, healing. For others, it was “like being in the Baptist church” (not usually a compliment from Episcopalians). One woman, who generally supports my musical choices, simply said (with disgust in her voice) “Please! No more of this!” She was no happier when I followed up by selecting “Jesus loves me” for the next week. For that one, she said afterwards “I almost walked out.” But the positive responses from others to both songs were equally strong.

I do not know if singing these two songs was the Right Thing To Do, given the divisions they awakened. In their defense, they did fit the lessons for the day, which was my primary reason for choosing them. Both of them appear in Official Episcopal Songbooks (though not our main book, the Hymnal 1982). And they represent a musical style almost never heard in this parish, a voice that in my opinion is worthy of our attention.

I can offer only one thought: with songs like these, both of them with simple three-chord harmonies, it is essential to respect them. The musician can easily trivialize them, which is fatal. With the piano prelude on “Sweet hour” (and the next week’s prelude, which included “Jesus loves me” alongside two other hymns), I wanted to establish the idea of taking these songs seriously.

----------------

Yesterday I spent close to an hour at the music store, improvising on their Casio GP-500 hybrid piano, with headphones as I will mostly be playing in retirement. I enjoyed it every bit as much as playing the Steinway at the church (the one heard in this and all of my piano recordings). The session with the Casio brought clearness to me: given all the considerations involved, this is my piano of choice. I am ready to write a check and buy it. Except there is no place in our current living arrangement to put it, and I would have little time to play it.

Before his retirement, one of my dearest friends longed for a yacht. I think he wanted to live on one. As it came to pass, he was denied that wish by health conditions, but I think the dream helped him make it to the finish line of his career.

And so it is for me: the piano has become a symbol of retirement and freedom. Some days it seems so far away. But I recall the Word that came to me through a friend over a year ago: “You still have work to do here.” I believe that is still true.

Good services on Sunday: good choral singing, good hymn singing (yes, even “Jesus loves me”), Choral Evensong with Wm. Smith (which all by itself is enough to make my day). I played the organ well enough, including two pieces by Bach, one of them being a piece where I had fallen apart with the “yips” a year ago. I could feel them coming on in one passage, but by God’s grace it did not fall apart.

It was especially good to practice the big C minor prelude and fugue (BWV 546) over the past fortnight and play it for the evensong. I am glad that it is granted me to keep doing this sort of thing.

I will sing to the LORD as long as I live:
I will praise my God while I have my being.
(Psalm 104:34)

Friday, September 21, 2018

an Unequal Temperament

The clavichord needs to be tuned every two or three weeks, and it doesn’t take long to do it. I have taken this as opportunity to experiment with unequal temperaments.

Back in piano tuning school, we were taught to always tune in equal temperament, which has many advantages. It makes all of the keys equally usable, and is almost universal nowadays for everything except early music (up through J. S. Bach, maybe a little further – some extend the use of unequal temperaments on into the Classical era of Haydn and Mozart.)

Hermann Helmholz in his nineteenth-century book “On the sensations of tone” speaks ill of equal temperament, especially for the training of singers (see chapter 16 for an extended discussion of tempered intonation). For example: “The singer who practices to a tempered instrument has no principle at all for exactly and certainly determining the pitch of his voice.” (p. 326)

So when I tuned the choir room piano about six weeks ago, I decided to apply one of my clavichord tunings and see how it sounds. So far, so good: none of the choristers have yet complained, and I think that I prefer it to equal temperament. The “good” keys (C major, F and G major, etc.) are cleaner than they are in equal temperament, and the keys with two sharps or flats are almost as good. The keys with three and four flats and sharps are about like they are in equal temperament. The others? Not so much. The crunchiest is G flat major, as described below; it is barely usable, with D flat major about as bad. Is that too great a price for the improvements in the other keys? That is an open question.

For those who might be interested, here is my tuning plan, such as it is. On the clavichord, I don’t follow a plan, beyond making the fifths and thirds increasingly “noisy” as they move around toward the back side of the circle of fifths (that is, the G flat to D flat fifth, or maybe the D flat to A flat). The details differ every time I tune it, depending on whether I am in a mood that day to favor the sharp keys or the flat keys.

Tuning a piano is a bigger undertaking, so I was more careful:

The Foundation

Tune the A-440 from the tuning fork, then down an octave to the next A, the one on which you will base the tuning.

Tune the following intervals:
F-A pure (no beats. This is a considerably smaller major third than equal temperament)
A-E pure
C-E pure (that is, tune the C based on the E that you have just tuned)
Check F-C; should be about one beat
Check F-A-C triad; should be almost pure
Check A-C-E minor triad: should be pure or almost pure

Tune C-G pure
Check C-E-G triad; should be pure

Tune G-D, about 1 beat narrow
Check D-A (down a fourth from the D), should be about 1 beat wide; adjust D to balance the D-A fourth and the G-D fifth

Tune G-B pure
Check B-E, should be about 2 beats
Check G-B-D triad, should be almost pure
Check G-B-E minor triad (first inversion), should be clean but not pure.

Tune the F to F octave.

This completes the white notes for the temperament octave.

The Balancing

Now for the fun part: the black notes, which are a matter of tradeoffs.

Tune the following intervals:
F up to B flat, about 2 beats wide
B down to F sharp, about 2 beats wide
A up to C sharp, about 1 or two beats wide

Check the intervals from F sharp to A sharp, which will be fairly clean, and F sharp to C sharp, which will be noisy, 3 or 4 beats. Check the F# - A# - C# triad. This will be the worst in the temperament because of the fifth.

Adjust these three pitches (F#, A#, C#) to your satisfaction, checking the major and minor triads (most of them in one or another inversion) that they complete: B flat major, B flat minor, B minor, F# minor, A major, F# major. They will have varying degrees of cleanliness; which of them are better is up to you.

Take a deep breath.

Tune the B flat up to E flat (interval of a fourth), about 1 beat wide.
Check B-D#, should be fairly clean. Check B major, likewise fairly clean.

Tune the E flat down to A flat (interval of a fifth), about 1 beat narrow.
Check the A flat-C-E flat triad. It should be fairly clean. Adjust E flat and A flat to your preference.

Check A flat-D flat, compare with the F# - C# fifth, adjust the C#/D flat so that these two intervals beat at about the same speed, about three beats, checking the thirds from A to C# and A flat to C so that they are both acceptably clean (they will not be pure). This is a point where you could choose to favor the sharp keys over the flat keys by making A-C# cleaner than A flat – C, or vice versa if you would prefer to favor the flat keys. That may depend on what music you plan to play on the instrument before its next tuning. Check the other triads that include A flat and D flat.

Check all major and minor triads. The best way to do this is by going around the circle of fifths, starting with the C major triad and moving either direction (C-G-D-A etc. or C-F-B flat-E flat etc.). The triads should get increasingly “noisy” in a smooth progression up to the G flat major triad, then gradually smoother as you go on back down the other side toward C major. The minor triads should do likewise, starting with A minor.

It is up to you as to how extreme you make the temperament, and you can favor the sharp keys over the flats or vice-versa; the above is only a guideline, especially the latter part of it on the black notes. It is all a matter of tradeoffs.

The Rest of the Piano

From here, tune pure octaves as usual, up to the top and then down to the bottom. The one wrinkle for me was that the octave check intervals I normally use in equal temperament – chains of chromatic tenths in the treble, which should gradually increase in beat speed as one ascends – do not work at all. The chromatic thirds even in the temperament octave will have radically different beat speeds. Same for the low bass, where I likewise check with the interval of the tenth, also the minor seventh (or rather, minor fourteenth – the seventh plus an octave) which in the low bass beats slowly enough to be useful). But with the unequal temperament, about the only way to check the octaves is with the fourth and fifth that lie within the octave that you are tuning; are they what one would expect, given the degree of beating in those intervals in the temperament octave? Remember that the beat speeds will be faster as one goes up and slower as one goes down.

For further study

If these matters are of interest, you might look in a library for Owen Jorgensen’s book “Tuning the historic temperaments by ear” (Michigan State Univ. Press, 1991) which appears to be out of print.

Here is a discussion of the book in the excellent forum “Piano World.” Notice in particular the remarks by Bill Bremmer, an experienced piano technician. He gives a very different “recipe” for an unequal tuning, based on the Thomas Young Well Temperament (1799), which leaves the F-A and C-E thirds somewhat impure, but would make the more distant triads (F# major, C# major) significantly cleaner than the plan outlined above.

Also, here is a website that discusses historical temperaments, giving a good overview of the subject. The author (Kyle Gann) gives the pitches in cents, which shows the difference of each pitch from its equally-tempered equivalent (in equal temperament, each half step is 100 cents, with 1200 cents to the octave). This would be more useful than tuning-by-ear accounts such as mine if one is tuning with the use of an electronic tuner.

But I leave you with the lesson I have learned from all this: the precise details of an unequal temperament are of little importance, especially on instruments such as the clavichord and harpsichord which are easily re-tuned. I have tried to suggest some basic principles, and encourage those interested to experiment freely on their own instrument.

The details matter somewhat more on a piano, and quite a lot on a pipe organ, for which a change of temperament is a multi-day operation and definitely not to be undertaken lightly or as an experiment.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Hybrid Pianos, revisited

Two years ago, as I was exploring pianos with the idea of purchasing one for retirement, I concluded that I would probably end up with a hybrid piano rather than a traditional acoustic piano. But some questions remain. I wrote:
Can the best of the hybrids be the solo instrument for a piano concerto with the top-level orchestras of the world, and the top concert artists? Can they do the job for chamber music, again with world-class performers? Can they satisfy pianists whose career is on the line, and their fellow musicians, collaborators in music such as Schubert’s song cycle "Winterreise," the Brahms violin sonatas, Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time?

Here is a partial answer: a Casio hybrid piano in a Mozart concerto with chamber orchestra at the Berlin Philharmonie, one of the world’s great music venues. The clip includes some side-by-side playing, with one pianist at the Casio, another at the (acoustic) concert grand, trading off Mozart phrases. And an audience in the room to hear it.

Some observations:

- The Casio holds its own quite respectably, in my opinion. One can find disagreement with this in the comments to the YouTube clip.
- It is different in sound from the acoustic, but no more different in my opinion than two acoustic grands might be from one another.
- This was, of course, a made-for-YouTube commercial message from Casio. Not a real concert. One should remain skeptical.
- The Casio retails for around $5,000. A concert grand will set you back closer to $150,000-200,000.
- According to the Casio rep speaking at about the 1:20 mark in the video, it was the chamber orchestra's idea to do this. From earlier in the clip, it appears that the Casio was the piano in their smaller rehearsal hall. Casio rep: "[The orchestra] said 'You've got a wonderful instrument there. We want, together with you, to show it on the stage, and show our grand hybrid as a completely acoustic instrument, with all the other acoustic instruments in the orchestra.'" Very interesting, if all of this is true.

I think Casio has made their point: the instrument would be suitable for professional concert use. It would be even more suitable, and economical, for situations such as a choir room or the rehearsal room seen in the video.

Most aficionados of digital instruments would agree that the Casio hybrids are not the best of the bunch: the Yamaha AvantGrand hybrids are better, and Kawai has a new offering in the field that many people like; both of these are considerably more expensive. These pianos would surely do as well or better than the Casio in a similar side-by-side comparison with orchestra.

My thoughts have not changed from when I explored these things in 2016. Pending the circumstances in which we retire, I still hope to purchase the Casio, to sit alongside my clavichord.

[Edited to add: As soon as I posted this, I found a performance of Rachmaninoff with Casio hybrid and orchestra. It is another made-for-YouTube commercial message by Casio, but puts the piano in the situation where I doubted whether it could hold up: alongside an orchestra in "big" Romantic repertoire. I note that the piano is miked and amplified by a speaker facing out into the hall (you can see the setup briefly at the 43 second mark of the video). But it is a mike picking up the acoustic sound from the instrument, not a direct feed from the electronics. There is also a monitor speaker aimed toward the conductor. It is clearly a "real" performance, not something that has been heavily doctored up. My impression, best one can tell from the recording, is that I was right in my 2016 essay, that in this setting, a hybrid piano falls short of the "real thing." But not by much.

My question at that point was in regard as to whether a hybrid piano could accompany congregational singing as well as our Steinway, in the same manner in which the electronic organs all fall short of a good pipe organ in this task. I think that remains an open question. The hybrid pianos are designed to sound as closely as possible like a good acoustic grand from the perspective of the player, sitting at the bench. That is different from projecting sufficient sound into a large hall to balance an orchestra - or a vigorously singing congregation. You can always take a feed from the line out, send it into an amplifier and speakers, and make it as loud as you want. But that strikes me as cheating.]

Sunday, August 26, 2018

I was glad when they said unto me...

I was glad when they said unto me: Let us go into the house of the LORD.
Here is a three-hour YouTube video of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey, 2 June 1953, as broadcast by the BBC.

If you click the “more” button in the YouTube description, you will find a description of the musical forces – including twenty trebles chosen by audition from parish choirs by the RSCM, who spent a month in residence at Addington Palace preparing to join the choristers of the Abbey, St. Paul’s, and St. George’s, Windsor: 182 trebles in all. With the ATBs and orchestral forces: 480 musicians.

And you will find the music list. Of particular interest to my friends who attended this summer’s RSCM St. Louis Course, the Hubert Parry anthem “I was glad” (22 and a half minutes into the tape), in its proper liturgical setting. It comes at the end of a twenty-minute procession (accompanied by part of Handel’s Water Music) as the Queen enters the abbey, with the “Vivats” as she and her attendants pass under the Rood Screen into the choir and chancel. The quieter section “O pray for the peace of Jerusalem” comes as she kneels for prayer. Since this is a television broadcast, they unfortunately lower the volume for the announcer to speak during the climactic ending of the anthem, as the Crown and other regalia are placed on the Altar.

Following the Parry, a bit of high-stakes organ improvisation, by (I think) William McKie, organist of the Abbey. There is a bit of Parry’s hymn tune Laudate Dominum (O praise ye the Lord) near the end of it.

There is much more of musical interest: first performances of anthems by Herbert Howells, William H. Harris, George Dyson; a newly composed Te Deum by William Walton, and anthems composed for the occasion by Healey Willan and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

RVW has a large musical part in this service: it is his setting of the Mass which is sung (the Credo and Sanctus from his G Minor Mass), plus his setting of the Old Hundredth Psalm Tune, arranged for this occasion (1 hour 53 minutes into the tape). This is a great masterpiece, one of my favorites of his works – but the greatest gem is a bit later, during Holy Communion: a short motet which RVW wrote for the occasion, “O taste and see” (2 hours 17 minutes). After all of the loud music and grandeur, an unaccompanied treble solo (sung by a small group of trebles, it sounds like), then the choir, quiet and unaccompanied. Ninety seconds and it is done. The effect in this context is stunning.

There is more even than this: some Stanford, and Samuel Sebastian Wesley, the Tudor anthem “Rejoice in the Lord alway,” an Amen by Gibbons, the National Anthem, and the Pomp and Circumstance march at the end. And “Zadok the Priest,” which has been sung at every coronation since Handel wrote it for George II. It is as essential to a British coronation as “I was glad” has become.

--------------------
Three impressions:

It is hard to overstate the impressiveness of the choir’s initial entrance in “I was glad,” the first vocal music of the day. Most of the congregation had been there for hours. A long prelude of orchestral music had preceded the procession. Already the leaders of church and state had walked down the aisle, the archbishops of York and Canterbury among them, and the Prime Ministers of the Commonwealth, followed by the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Winston Churchill, one of the heroes of the twentieth century. A brass fanfare, then the majestic introduction that begins the Parry. And then the choir sings.

The Coronation is above all else a sacred liturgy according to the use of the Church of England, in essence an Ordination, complete with Gospel, Creed, Offertory of Bread and Wine (brought to the Archbishop by the new Queen), Eucharistic Prayer, Confession, Communion. I wonder whether the next coronation will include such things, given the multi-cultural and thoroughly secular nature of modern Britain.

On this day, Elizabeth is a very serious and determined young woman. She came of age during the Battle of Britain and a war where it seemed that Britain might be destroyed forever; she knew that the post-war world was changing in ways that were unknowable, and that it was her responsibility to lead her people through it.

From her Christmas Message the previous December:
At my Coronation next June, I shall dedicate myself anew to your service. I shall do so in the presence of a great congregation, drawn from every part of the Commonwealth and Empire, while millions outside Westminster Abbey will hear the promises and the prayers being offered up within its walls, and see much of the ancient ceremony in which Kings and Queens before me have taken part through century upon century.

You will be keeping it as a holiday; but I want to ask you all, whatever your religion may be, to pray for me on that day - to pray that God may give me wisdom and strength to carry out the solemn promises I shall be making, and that I may faithfully serve Him and you, all the days of my life.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Scales (with an afterword on Modes)

My piano student figured out on her own how to play a C major scale. We had introduced the concept of thumb-turns in the context of something she was playing, and she took it from there. It showed up in one of her improvisations (complete with the correct right hand fingering, which I did not teach her). I pointed it out to her and told her it was important. We then worked out the left hand fingering; I emphasized that for now scales must be SLOW and steady, thinking about good tone and hand position; we added them to her practice routine, which now (I hope) begins as follows:
Prayer
Scales
Other Stuff
She returned for the next lesson with C major, one octave, hands separately, played slowly and accurately.

So far, so good.
For as long as she is a musician, she will be playing scales. As will I.

But I got away from them for a number of years in midlife. I was bored with them, and focused instead on the pieces I was trying to learn. Insofar as I was doing technical work at all, it was more from the Brahms “Fifty-One Exercises” than anything else.

Then I began to improvise.

Dupré’s course on improvisation begins with the harmonization of the major scale, then minor. I spent a long time with this, in all keys. Scale in the soprano. Scale “en taille” (in the tenor). Scale in the pedals, or the left hand bass. It was a grind, but over the years since then it has proven increasingly worthwhile that I spent the time on this.

After Gerre Hancock published his book on improvisation, I found that he too began with scales, in a considerably freer approach. Unlike Dupré, Hancock encouraged creative harmonization in any style that takes your fancy in the moment.

That finally made it fun to play scales. When I am practicing free (non-hymn-based) improvisation, I often begin with a few scales – harmonized or contrapuntally oriented (or best of all, both), and let them lead me in whatever direction the ensuing music wants to go. Even when the work at hand is preparation to improvise on a specific tune, I might begin with the scale for the keys I hope to use in the improvisation before beginning to “learn the tune” (playing it in unison, and taking it from there).

-----------------------
Afterword:
Much more could be said about scales. I content myself with a final observation:

Play in and with the Modes.

Work with them in the same manner as major/minor: the scale in the soprano, chords harmonizing each note of the scale, up and down, slowly. Later, the scale in an inner voice or the bass. Do it in as many keys as you can. This remains for me a work in progress. If you ask me to knock out a quick harmonized scale in F sharp Mixolydian with subsequent improvisation, the results would likely be less than professional. But I am working on it.

The secret is to think “Where is Do?” In the above case, Mixolydian has the keynote on Sol, so Do is on B. Five sharps. It also helps – a lot – to notice that Mixolydian is Major with a flat seventh degree. So I can think “F sharp major” and play E naturals. All four of the Modes have near neighbors that are helpful in this manner:
Dorian – like natural Minor, with raised sixth degree
Phrygian – like natural Minor, with lowered second degree
Lydian – like Major, with raised fourth degree
Mixolydian – like Major, with lowered seventh degree
A benefit of this sort of work is that one soon gets a feel for the mode. What chords make a good cadence? What chord combinations work well, which ones not so much? What chords work well with specific scale degrees?

And: What is the characteristic ethos of the mode? Mixolydian has a sober dignity to it that I love: Lydian is the most joyful of modes, even more than Major: Dorian is like Minor but with greater strength and a yearning that comes from the raised sixth degree: Phrygian is strange, something all its own. To explain it I commend to you the magnificent Third Tune of Thomas Tallis (the Third Mode being another name for Phrygian), and the Fantasia on this tune by Vaughan Williams.

That brings me to another benefit of work with the modes: you might start sounding like Vaughan Williams. Or Herbert Howells.

I suspect that these composers got their “sound” in part from long exposure to the Modes – for RVW, it was his work with folksongs; for Howells, his work with the Tudor Church Music project. I can imagine them playing around at a piano with these things, finding the characteristic harmonizations and melodic patterns.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

When are you going to direct a Course?

One of our teen choristers asked me this on Sunday. She was not the first; another asked me late in the week at Todd Hall. He was insistent: “You are good. You ought to be doing this stuff.” Yet another asked the same question during our pre-course rehearsals in June.

I would love to have the opportunity. But for a variety of reasons it is not going to happen, and that is fine with me. For one thing, it is more satisfying to participate as a singer. I learned this partly from the year when I was half-of-an-organist, assisting Br. Vincent. But that is selfish; a better reason is that there are better people available, among them our own Kristin Lensch, long-time treble housemaster at the Course and this year the adult housemaster; she most certainly should be directing Courses, and not just this one. The number of people who could do this work well is not large, perhaps in the dozens, but it is sufficient without me.

For another, these days we have some choral experiences right here in the parish that are comparable to what we achieve at the RSCM Course: for example, our evensong in May.

The work that lies ahead for me is the same as it was at the end of last summer: finding a way to bring the skills home from RSCM to the parish choir, and building on them. I do wish we could have a week of intensive daily rehearsals, especially morning rehearsals when everyone is fresh, here at home instead of only at the Course. It would be good to see what we could then accomplish.

But what we have is one rehearsal a week. Thus, a resolution: make the most of the time that we have, and seek to make every rehearsal as good as the RSCM rehearsals at their best.

There was a time when I was more ambitious. I wanted to be organist/choirmaster at a notable parish or cathedral with a strong RSCM program, regular choral evensongs, choral settings of the Mass at Sunday Eucharist. Directing a few RSCM Courses would have been a culmination to that sort of career. Playing some organ recitals here and there would be good, too, and to be known and respected by other organists, part of the Inner Circle, the people that matter. Thankfully, none of these things have come my way, not even close.

What has come instead is that, little by little, we have right here in our little Midwestern parish developed a strong RSCM program, and we will soon begin our nineteenth season of First Sunday Choral Evensongs. And I have learned to play the hymns tolerably well, and even to improvise a little, something I never expected.

The three choristers who asked me about directing a Course have given me a gift: their esteem. It means the world to me that some of them think sufficiently well of my work as a choral director to say such things. With God’s help, I must live up to it, and be the director they think I am.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

God's a-gonna build up Zion's walls

And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. (Revelation 21:2)

Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God; and are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; in whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord; in whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22; see also I Peter 2:5)

Great day! Great day, the righteous marching,
Great day! God’s a-gonna build up Zion’s walls.
(spiritual, which we sang in an arrangement by Warren Martin)
Thirty years ago, I thought the repertoire was the most important aspect of the RSCM Courses, and it was. I thought that the skills I learned from the music directors were important, and they are; I was granted a solid background at the Choir College for which I am grateful, but the Courses have taught me much more. But it took me many years to learn what is most important and best about the RSCM Courses: the people.

It was a delight to chat with the other adults over breakfasts and dinners and suppers in the dining hall; to take an evening “field trip” to a local ice cream shoppe; to talk at length with two of my best friends in a manner that doesn’t happen in our normal routines; to share in a three-hour Lebanese dinner with “a few” (twenty-six, that is) parents and choristers after Sunday Mass.

It was a joy to see Mario again, whom I first met when he was a young tenor at the Course, his voice newly changed. He is now in college and attending this week as an adult participant, and it was good to stand by him in the tenor section for part of the week as we did so many years ago. I did not think our paths would cross again.

It was good to sing under Michael Messina, and to be reminded that we first met long ago at one of the Charlotte RSCM courses for boys, where he was organist and I was there with choristers. I had forgotten this, as I had forgotten that it was that week when I first encountered the Short Service of Orlando Gibbons. It has been important to me ever since, possibly my favorite setting of the Evening Canticles.

It was a joy to accompany my student HMB in the talent show, the two of us playing the beginning and ending of “Rejoice in the Lamb,” a project of her devising after last summer’s Course.

It was a very great joy to see Mike and Tom and Bryn do the real work of the course – looking after the young people as proctors. I remember all three of them from their childhood, and it fills my heart with joy to see them all grown up and strong and intelligent and creative and full of integrity.

It was a joy to look to the right and see the front row of trebles in the Decani, many of them from our choir at home, and all of them singing with full commitment and delight. Or right in front of me in the Cantoris, two of our teen girls, grown into intelligent choral musicians of whom any choir would be proud. Or the young choirmen among whom I stood, six of them from our parish either now or when they were younger.

For the greatest joy is singing with these people, young and old. Parry’s “I was glad”. The Sicut cervus of Palestrina, one of the great choral masterpieces of all time. Anthems with connections to two of my teachers long ago at the Choir College.

I wish it could ever be so. One of the teen boys asked me “Why can’t we do this all year?” He is right to ask, but it is not simple.
O God, whose days are without end, and whose mercies cannot be numbered: Make us, we beseech thee, deeply sensible of the shortness and uncertainty of life… (BCP p. 489)
Somewhere in St. John of the Cross, we are admonished to flee from the temptation to cling to anything in this life. As soon as we clutch a moment in our arms and say “I want this to last forever,” it turns to ashes.

One of our trebles has moved to another state far to the east, and the Course was our last farewell to her and her family. It was hard, and will remain hard. One of the long-time adults was absent for reasons that are not clear to me, and I wonder when I will see her again. One of the former proctors is now a deacon and in a faraway place; he has missed two Courses in a row and again, I wonder when I will see him again. Soon enough, it will be me that is absent.

Reflecting on these things, the passage from Ephesians came to mind. How is it that we are “fitly framed together,” and what does that mean?

There are many ways, including the Holy Sacraments and Prayer. Another, and among the most powerful, is singing together. The more we do this, the stronger the bond. I hear and see it not just in the Courses, but in our choirs at home, and the Sacred Harp group that meets in our choir room, and the Skipperlings and the Family Folk Machine.

As in an earthly building, some of the most important ties for the architecture of the whole are those that, once formed, leap across the miles or the decades. No act of friendship, no song sung or played together, is in vain. The Spirit is at work in them, patiently knitting us into a whole that, until its completion, is known only to God. "I go to prepare a place for you," He says. He prepares the place by preparing us, for we are that place. Every song, every conversation between friends, every field trip for ice cream – each builds or strengthens a tie. If you will, these things are the connective tissue the binds the Body of Christ into one, the mortar and connecting rods and flying buttresses that join us into “an holy temple… an habitation of God through the Spirit.”

And so through all the length of days
thy goodness faileth never:
Good Shepherd, may I sing thy praise
within thy house for ever.
(Henry W. Baker, from “The King of love my Shepherd is”)
We sang well. There were many moments through the week that were especially fine: the first time in rehearsal when we really got rolling on “I was glad,” any time we sang the Sicut cervus, the moment when “Great Day” finally clicked.

More than any of these: “The King of love my shepherd is.” The opening hymn for the Mass, our director called early in the week for a “descant competition” for its tune St. Columba. Any chorister or adult who wished could compose a descant for the hymn. Only two took him up on it, both of them from our parish: Jean and Caleigh. We sang both descants, with Jean’s on the second stanza and Caleigh’s at the end. They fit their respective texts perfectly, the one calm and beautiful, the other more adventurous. When it came time for the hymn in the liturgy, I was quite undone: the organ, the large acoustic, the trebles’ strong clear line soaring into the space, all bound up in my affection for these two musicians. “Cling not to these things!” I remind myself. Music more than any other art lives in the moment, eluding every effort to bind it. But it lives in the Mind of God forever.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Book of Ways

I have been listening to Keith Jarrett’s “Book of Ways” (1989), played on the clavichord. Ninety minutes or so of it, in nineteen improvised tracks. I commend it to anyone who plays the clavichord.

The LP album is obscure and out of print, so far as I know never reissued on CD. Used copies show up on eBay, often at high prices, or you can do as I did and listen on YouTube: here is the track list.

When I built my clavichord from a kit, I was not ready for it, and it was in any event a second choice: I wanted a harpsichord, but could not afford it. I quickly found the clavichord unsuitable for practicing, not even for Bach (J. S., that is, for with the clavichord C. P. E. Bach is almost as important a name as his father). The short keys forced early fingering, of which (at the time, between undergraduate work as a pianist and organ studies later at the Choir College) I knew nothing. The music rack, such as it is – a tiny lip at the base of the lid, across the instrument from the player – was a little too distant to read easily and unwieldy to write fingerings without taking the score from the rack. So I did my practicing on my upright piano, and soon enough at the church where I was beginning to be an organist, digging through John Stainer’s organ method and the Orgelbüchlein, which taught me as it has taught almost every organist for generations.

When I set up the clavichord in my office at my current church, it quickly became a table, piled with many hundreds of octavos – five large filing boxes left to me by my predecessor upon his retirement. Dealing with them took well over a decade, the pile diminishing bit by bit as I had opportunity – and it was never a high priority. Theoretically, I could move them to the floor and play the clavichord, then put them back, but that was enough resistance to guarantee that I didn’t.

What I had not realized was that the clavichord was never as adequate for repertoire as its sister the harpsichord, or the organ and pianoforte. Instead, the clavichord exists for improvisation – of which, like early fingering, I had not the slightest clue back in the days when the instrument was new.

I wish I had known that forty years ago. I wish I had let the instrument teach me.

Nowadays my first music of the day is improvisation on the clavichord. Sometimes it is work-related: playing around with tunes that are in the coming Sunday’s services. Sometimes it is no more than harmonizing scales or simple bass-line patterns. More often by far it is simply playing whatever comes into my head and letting it develop into a little piece.

These little improvisations from Mr. Jarrett are a model to which I aspire. One gets the impression that they developed for him in a similar manner to mine, though surely they went through the sieve of repeated takes, or the playing of many more pieces than the nineteen that made it onto the LP.

I will not try to describe them in detail: this reviewer did much better. It is not clear at first what he is talking about with his numbered list, one to nineteen: these are his attempts at description for each of the tracks. For example:
7. It tickles the feet of our childhood, making us laugh in ways we have since denied.

11. It is a love letter, a heart unfolded into the map of another heart. A dewy pasture that remembers lovelier days when the torturous end of an age was not upon us.
The clavichord can do such things. The organ, for all its differing gifts, cannot. The piano? Maybe, but in a different, more outgoing way.

Be warned: another reviewer (Richard Ginell, quoted in Wikipedia s.v. “Book of Ways”) described it thus: “Sometimes this music is charming; a lot of the time, it gets wearisome.”

I agree that playing the album straight through is not the best way to listen. Better to take one track at a time, perhaps playing it several times if you like it. Better still, then see if it might be a springboard for your own improvisation.
------------------
What then does the organ do best?

It sings.

It sings in ways that none of the stringed keyboards can match. And not just one melody: two, three, four, even five and six melodies at a time. Trio sonatas. Fugues. Counterpoint of all kinds.

Most of all, congregational hymns and songs. Alone, alongside the people, in commentary/dialogue with them (e.g., Paul Manz's organ stanzas between congregational stanzas).

But that is for another essay.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

"Old times there are not forgotten..."

In memory of those who fell in battle on this day: July 3, 1863 (reprinted from October 2011)

It's all now you see.... For every southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and ... yet it's going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn't need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time. [William Faulkner, from “Intruder in the Dust”]


When I was a lad, I often visited the graveyard near home, especially the lichen-covered stone marker set flat in the ground in one corner at the highest point of the yard. In worn letters, it recorded the names of the Confederate home-guard militia soldiers who died on that hilltop, defending their home town in 1862. (There is now a fine modern monument, erected a few years ago by the Sons of the Confederacy. I left some flowers on it the last time I was there.) It was just a skirmish, not worthy of being called a battle, and the handful of boys and old men who fought there were not even soldiers of the regular Army. Their opponents in blue were indeed “real” soldiers, a nineteen-year-old future president (McKinley) among them. Despite opposition they could not hope to overcome, the militia men of the community fought as best they could and did their duty as they understood it. I doubt that slavery, or states' rights, or any of the other reasons given in history books for the war, figured in their minds that spring day.

Our county, at that time so sparsely populated and remote that it was considered a “wilderness,” sent eleven companies of men into the Army of Northern Virginia. I have stood on Seminary Ridge at Gettysburg and read the names of these eleven companies where they waited through the artillery bombardment that July morning. I have stood, and wept, beside the statue of General Lee astride Traveller looking across that field, much as he was that day in 1863 as the shattered army streamed back past him, defeated.

One of my friends, an African-American musician serving a historic church in the South, related his victory in getting the Confederate Flag removed from his church. He threatened them with a lawsuit because, he said, the Flag constituted harassment, creating a threatening and unwelcoming workplace. I did not even try to explain; I could not, not in terms that he would understand. Even my wife, who knows me better than anyone, does not understand. Her take: “The war is over. You lost. Get over it.”

I will never get over it.

The legacy of the Confederate States of America is a mixed bag. Yes, slavery was part of it. The racism of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan that followed the war must be counted as part of it. In this, the CSA was no better, and in my opinion no worse, than the USA, or any other nation of the earth. For every nation and people of the earth, history and culture amount to a mixed bag, with shameful deeds alongside moments of glory; men and women who would be better forgotten, and those whose names should live forever.

A certain indescribable freedom was lost when Old Dixie went down. I have felt the evanescent spirit of it lingering among gatherings of my older relatives, and in conversation with neighbors and co-workers “back home,” especially the more backward and uneducated among them. I have tasted it in the moonshine at my uncle's funeral, and in my mother's corn bread and beans, made just the way her mother, and her mother's mother, made it. Some of it can be heard in the old “hillbilly” songs, and to a lesser degree in the bluegrass and country music that descended from them, or in the “shape-note” singing that has survived mostly in the Old South.

The victory by the North was a victory for Yankee capitalism, for centralized government, for the “robber barons” that would follow the war, for the tenement and factory over the hardscrabble hill and delta farms of the South. It was, as well, the emancipation of a people who should never have been enslaved. It was when the United States became a nation. Shelby Foote noted in his three-volume study of the War that before 1860, people would say “the United States are . . . .” After 1865, it became “the United States is . . . .” We are no longer a collection of states, but one nation, and I am glad of it.

I came to better appreciate the men who fought to save the Union by reading Walt Whitman, and from a courthouse monument in northern New York. The men from that little town and the countryside around it were among the men who were behind that stone wall across the field from my people on that July afternoon. One can read it there on the monument, where the names of battles were engraved. Almost from beginning to end, these men of the Army of the Potomac were badly led, driven off battlefield after battlefield, or sent to their deaths in ill-conceived assaults that should never have been attempted. One can read of those horrors graven on the monument in names such as “Fredericksburg... Chancellorsville... Cold Harbor....” Yet, they persevered, and almost in spite of their commanders, won the war.

And above all, there was Abraham Lincoln.

But my heart will always be in the South. I will always revere Robert E. Lee, Thomas Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart, James Longstreet, A. P. Hill, Dick Ewell, “Allegheny” Johnson, Albert Sidney Johnston, Patrick Cleburne, Bedford Forrest, William Lamb, Raphael Semmes, Jefferson Davis and his cabinet, and many others who were faithful in their duties to home and country. I will try to live up to their example. But it is not only leaders such as these, the ones whose names are in the histories, whose example I emulate....

In the South, there was no money for monuments after the War. Confederate monuments are almost always smaller than those in the towns across the North. The one in the county next over from where I grew up is smaller even than most. It can be found behind an old church on the edge of the little town that is the county seat, and dates from about 1910, when the people of the county finally scraped up enough money to hire a local stonecarver to make it. It is a boy, a teenager, in slouch hat and ragged clothes, barefoot, musket in hand. He looks across the field to the hills that he doubtless loved, and perhaps never saw again after he marched off to the war. I will try, as well, to live up to his example, and the example of those home-guard militiamen buried on the hill near my home, stubbornly persevering in duty and love of country even in defeat.

Inscribed on the monument is just one sentence, a quote from Lee: "There is a true glory and a true honor: the glory of duty done -- the honor of integrity of principle."
Northern politicians will not appreciate the determination and pluck of the South, and Southern politicians do not appreciate the numbers, resources, and patient perseverance of the North. Both sides forget that we are all Americans. I foresee that our country will pass through a terrible ordeal, a necessary expiation, perhaps, for our national sins....

The truth is this: The march of Providence is so slow and our desires so impatient; the work of progress is so immense and our means of aiding it so feeble; the life of humanity is so long, that of the individual so brief, that we often see only the ebb of the advancing wave and are thus discouraged. It is history that teaches us to hope. - Robert E. Lee
----------------
In my recent travels (June 2018) I visited the Confederate memorial in the town of my boyhood, said prayers, and left some flowers. It remains well-tended in a time when such things have fallen into disrepute among many.

Here is a photograph of the monument in a neighboring county described above, the barefoot teenager looking across the green fields to the hills. The photo is from this website: