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)

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.

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.

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

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Lord, make us servants

Here is Sunday’s piano improvisation on “Gather us in” (Marty Haugen) and Hymn 593 in the Episcopal Hymnal 1982: “Lord, make us servants of your peace.” It is a paraphrase of the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi by the Scottish poet and religious James Quinn, S.J. The tune is “Dickinson College” by Lee Hastings Bristol, Jr., in a 5/4 meter.

The form is one to which that I have come to gravitate: a sort of double-variation with elements of ABA and perhaps sonata form.

- First Tune, with several variations
- (2’50”) Second Tune, in contrasting key.
- (3’40”) Variations on second tune, increasingly involving the first tune as well, becoming more of a development section
- (7’03”) Return to tonic: First Tune, usually with some Second Tune mixed with it.
- (7’52”) Coda

For the first time in months, I did not improvise at the piano at all this week, not until Sunday morning in the half-hour or so before the liturgy. I wrote out the “Dickinson College” tune in the dominant key because I do not know it very well; I trusted memory on “Gather us in.” I had a vague notion of using something along the lines of the form described above. And that was it.

Improvisation is funny that way; you can sit down at the piano and just do it, creating what Mike Garson calls “Now” music entirely in the moment with little or no specific preparation. It is like magic. Or more properly, a miracle.

Obviously, it is nothing of the sort; it is the result of day after day of playing around with the tunes, getting to know them, and finding new ways to work with them. Before we changed the middle service start time, creating a need for an improvised piano prelude every Sunday and thus the discipline of a weekly deadline to make me practice instead of just wishing I could improvise decently, there is no way I could have done this.

This week, it worked pretty well. But “thou shalt not tempt the LORD thy God.” If I go very long without any improvisation practice at all, the results would soon be not so good. It probably helped that I was not altogether idle; I spent plenty of hours at the organ, working mostly on the Franck Chorale for evensong. That kept my mind and spirit musically engaged, and my fingers in action.

This week, I hope to do better. But it is Wednesday noon and I haven’t made it to either piano or organ yet since Sunday. That comes next, right now until Youth Choir in about four hours.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

How I practice: a demonstration

I described my practice method in a 2011 essay. Recently, I encountered the book “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle, where he describes a practice method similar to this, calling it “Deep Practice.” Here is my version:
- Work out the fingering
- Play a short passage (perhaps four measures, or one phrase), slowly.
- Play it again
- Play it a third time, still very slowly.
- Modify the rhythms several ways, still just this one phrase. The goal is to isolate the smallest musical unit – two notes – and tie them together with the neighboring units.
- Then larger groupings – four notes, two beats, a measure.
- Play the passage at a faster tempo, performance tempo if possible.
- Move to the next phrase, learn it in the same manner.
- For review, play the two phrases together.
- Move on to the third phrase.
- Repeat…
- When the practice session is nearly finished (or when I have worked through the entire movement or large section), give it a final slow, careful, mistake-free playthrough at half tempo or less. It settles the day’s work, as if telling the mind and body “Yes, this is how it goes.”
- The next day, repeat the above.

I have recorded an example of how this goes; it can be found here.

It is my first beginning with the Franck Chorale in E major, which will hopefully be the prelude for the February Evensong tomorrow. Before taking it to the organ as it is in the example, I have worked out the fingering, thoroughly. I write a finger number for every note.

I begin not at the beginning of the piece, but at measure 170. This begins a passage of about sixty bars that I expect to be the most challenging, and I normally begin my work on a piece at such a spot, building around it as the work progresses.

I am pleased that there are Problems, especially at the page turn between measures 174 and 175. It happens to be a difficult spot, made harder by the page turn. This seems to happen a lot; I have wondered if music editors do it intentionally. Especially in the first slow playthrough, there are almost always a few problems, and the clip is a good illustration of how to work on them, not allowing a mistake to go uncorrected.

Basically, my little workpiece is one phrase. I extend it a measure and a half past the phrase end because of the page turn, with the intention of starting the next phrase just before the page turn, giving it a double dose of work. Unless the turn is very easy, I generally do this.

After all of the rhythmic variations and groupings and playthroughs, I move on to the next phrase and treat it in the same manner. Then I string the two phrases together, and move on to the third phrase. When it is done, I string at least the second and third phrases together, and perhaps include the first phrase again, as well. At the end of the practice session, I finish with a final slow play-through of all that I have covered. I use the metronome for this, normally at half of the performance tempo.

The method seems highly inefficient in the short run, for it took me over twenty minutes to work through ten measures of music – in a piece that is 259 measures long. But I think that the listener can tell that those twenty minutes resulted in significant progress on the little passage, and one more day’s work on it will solidify it. In the long run, I find this method of work to be an immense time-saver.

My plan is to give the two pages that I got through today their Second Workout on my next day of practice – pretty much the same as the First Workout, except that it usually goes more smoothly – then lay it aside until I have worked through the entire piece in this manner. If possible, I will try to include one slow playthrough per week of the parts I have previously covered to keep them somewhat fresh. If this works, it could be the key for how I can better prepare a lot of music for one occasion, such as a recital or the Great Vigil/Easter Day.

I made the recording and wrote most of the above on January 6 and 7. It is now February 4, with the Evensong coming up tomorrow. The Franck has made good progress and I think it will be ready, even though I did not complete my Second Workout on one two-page section of the piece until yesterday.

For a long time, I have been on a journey toward being a Better Musician. It has troubled me for years that I continue to make so many mistakes in performance, so I continue to improve my practice methods. I think that this month’s work on the Franck is a step in the right direction.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Rest in peace

May God’s peace and blessings be with the members of the Red Army Choir, the Alexandrov Ensemble, who died in the airplane crash over the Black Sea on Christmas Day. They were doing their duty: flying to a Russian military base in Syria to sing for the troops on deployment there.

One of my friends, who I think still reads these posts, does similar work as a musician in the U.S. military. It is important work, and not sufficiently respected in parts of the civilian musical world. Well, all of the military musicians of our country, and other countries, have my respect for what it is worth.

There are several video tributes to the Alexandrov Ensemble on YouTube. Here is a brief one, from what I think is a Russian television network. They are singing a patriotic song, "The Red Army is the strongest” with video of what I suppose is a May Day military parade in Moscow, followed by what is probably a folksong, “The Road.” Lest some find it jingoistic, it is simply part of what such an ensemble does, much like the Army band playing "The Stars and Stripes Forever" at a White House event, or the military band playing the National Anthem in front of Buckingham Palace for the Queen's Christmas Message last weekend.

For a fuller sense of the choir’s work, here is their final concert, at the Bolshoi Theatre with instrumental ensemble and folk dancers. This is very fine choral singing, as one would find from equivalent U.S. choirs. Listen especially to the somewhat quieter songs starting at about 13’50” into the recording; it is a good way to remember these choristers.

It is my hope that President Trump might find a way to build peace between our nation and Russia. We have much in common, and many common interests in the world.

However that turns out, I hope that I might meet some of these choristers someday on the other side of Jordan, and that perhaps we might all sing together at the last, all of our divisions put aside forever.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Angels and the Song

In his discussion of the birth of Christ, Benedict XVI quotes St. Luke 2:12-14, the angels appearing to the shepherds. Of these verses he writes:
According to the evangelist, the angels “said” this [v. 12]. But Christianity has always understood that the speech of angels is actually song, in which all the glory of the great joy that they proclaim becomes tangibly present. And so, from that moment, the angels’ song of praise has never gone silent. It continues down the centuries in constantly new forms and it resounds ever anew at the celebration of Jesus’ birth. It is only natural that simple believers would then hear the shepherds singing too, and to this day they join in their caroling on the Holy Night, proclaiming in song the great joy that, from then until the end of time, is bestowed on all people. (Joseph Ratzinger [Pope Benedict XVI], Jesus of Nazareth: the Infancy Narratives, p. 73-74)
“The speech of angels is actually song…” what a wonderful description!

In another context, I wrote elsewhere that the angels help us sing; it works both ways, for we help them sing, too. Without our very human song – and, for that matter, the songs of birds, the great whales, and all other forms of song from every living creature in its proper manner – it would be incomplete, the “glory of the great joy” would be diminished.

I love this little book by the Holy Father, Pope Benedict, the third of three volumes he wrote on Jesus of Nazareth.

On another topic which arose here in a previous essay concerning the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Benedict writes of the Virgin Birth. After discussion of the “extensive exegetical debate” (p. 46) concerning Isaiah 7:14 and St. Matthew 1:22-23, he concludes:
Is what we profess in the Creed true, then?—“I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God… [who] by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary?”

The answer is an unequivocal yes. Karl Barth pointed out that there are two moments in the story of Jesus when God intervenes directly in the material world: the virgin birth and the resurrection from the tomb, in which Jesus did not remain, nor see corruption. These two moments are a scandal to the modern spirit. God is “allowed” to act in ideas and thoughts, in the spiritual domain—but not in the material. That is shocking. He does not belong there. But that is precisely the point: God is God and he does not operate merely on the level of ideas….

Naturally we may not ascribe to God anything nonsensical or irrational, or anything that contradicts his creation. But here we are not dealing with the irrational or contradictory, but precisely with the positive—with God’s creative power, embracing the whole of being. In that sense these two moments—the virgin birth and the real resurrection from the tomb—are the cornerstones of faith. If God does not also have power over matter, then he simply is not God. But he does have this power, and through the conception and resurrection of Jesus Christ he has ushered in a new creation. So as the Creator he is also our Redeemer. Hence the conception and birth of Jesus from the Virgin Mary is a fundamental element of our faith and a radiant sign of hope. (ibid., p. 56-57)

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Chronicles of Advent, Part Two

Thursday: a Sabbath of Rest

From my arrival home on Wednesday, shortly after midnight, to arising on Friday morning at 3:30 is a bit more than twenty-seven hours. I sleep for twenty-three of them, arising only for two meals and the Daily Office.

It is not enough.

But it is a start, and I am grateful that on the Sabbath, there is no shame in sleeping all day. It is harder every December to get through it. And it is to some degree my own fault. Last week, I desecrated the Sabbath by working; I had to cover for the rehearsal of a children’s choir for its concert, staying until they were done and securing the church, and in turn I stayed up late for said concert on Friday, around 10 pm before I left for home. I did have a day off on Monday, but as I wrote in the previous essay, it was entirely devoted to errands, grocery shopping, and cooking – and again a late night, so that I could serve a proper dinner to my wife when she completed a hard shift at her job.

It is never a good idea to desecrate the Sabbath.

Friday: Crunch time

I am in the darkened church by 6:30; it is not at all clear to me how I can squeeze in sufficient practice today and tomorrow.

I hesitate; there is no time for the piano. Not with all of that Bach staring me in the face. But I remove the cover from the Steinway, raise the lid, and begin. Just twenty minutes today, but it is good that I begin in this manner; as it did on Wednesday, it sets the spiritual context for the day’s work. And it is time to be working toward tomorrow’s early service.

Some years, there is time for a short piano prelude before the 5 pm Christmas Eve, the service with the largest attendance of the year in this parish, with youth choir and children’s pageant. Some years, I am scrambling around until the last moment and there is no prelude. And in any event, no one listens; it is typically a large, talkative crowd. For the years in which I have played, I have never prepared anything. This year, I will give at least a little thought to it:

D major, the dominant of the opening hymn, and based on it – “O come, all ye faithful,” Adeste fidelis. I make a beginning… then comes Stille Nacht – still with wrong notes in the tune. As a coda, a quiet first line of Antioch, “Joy to the world.” I am in tears.

Over to the organ. I work on the Bach Variations until the 10:00 pageant rehearsal, and for another hour in the afternoon before the 3:00 liturgical rehearsal. It is not enough.

Christmas Eve: Something old, something new

Very likely, Old Bach could improvise two-voice counterpoint as easily as most of us play scales. He could surely weave it around a chorale tune in the pedals. Probably, he could improvise something like the First Variation: the chorale in the pedals, a delightful little canon at the octave in the manuals.

But even Bach probably could not improvise something like the Fifth Variation – an augmentation canon. The two voices begin together and are identical, except one goes half the speed of the other, and of course the chorale is there, too, in the pedals.

I wrote somewhere that in his mature organ works, there is hardly any virtuosity for its own sake. But he was proud of his contrapuntal skill – rightfully, for no one before or since has matched it. In this sense, the Fifth Variation, quiet and beautiful as it is, is a place where Bach is showing off.

But when he was young, Bach reveled in his keyboard virtuosity. I am learning his youthful setting of “In dulci jubilo” (BWV 729), written when he was at Arnstadt and in his late teens or early twenties. It is an interesting pairing with the Variations, which were written near the end of his life; “In dulci jubilo” is exuberant, full of energy and delight.

It will be even more interesting if I can actually play it. I fingered it last Sunday after the youth caroling, and worked on it at the piano at odd moments through the week; its first proper workout at the organ is today, 2:30 pm on Christmas Eve. I work at it a little too long, and the choristers are arriving for their 4:15 rehearsal before I have set up the choir room for them.

There is time for a piano prelude, almost ten minutes of it; I play, not well at all. At least no one is listening, so far as I can tell. The liturgy goes well; the youth choir does very well, especially with their two movements from the Ceremony of Carols (though afterwards, a parishioner compares us unfavorably with the recording he listens to every year by a well-known British boy choir. He is right; we are not at that level. But we are here, and that other choir isn't.) I put things away, and it is back on the bench; a second workout on “In dulci jubilo,” plus the hymnody for the Midnight Mass, and the fourth and fifth Variations.

And it is time for another service; the adult choristers begin arriving for their 10 pm rehearsal. Many years we barely can field a choir for Midnight Mass so I have learned to select easy music for the service; this year, there are fifteen choristers.

Jean was at the earlier service, singing with the youth choir and assisting; she returns for the late service and turns pages for the Bach Variations. There are places that do not go well, but it is not for lack of preparation – the mistakes are “new” ones, all of them at places that had been trouble-free all week, and the difficult Third Variation goes very well. The mistakes are possibly from fatigue, for I have been on the bench a long time today, since 8:00 this morning with two half-hour breaks for meals. That is too much to expect to be fresh and play well at the end of it.

But the choir sings well, the hymnody goes well, and the “In dulci jubilo” postlude mostly goes well – in that case, the one place where I went astray was indeed due to lack of preparation.

And it is done; Advent is over.

If the Lord wills, I hope to play the “In dulci jubilo” again, perhaps next Christmas. And I would love to play the Canonic Variations again; I had hoped that this second playing, two years after the first, would be better than it turned out. It is great music, some of the best that we have from this greatest of composers, and I do not think that it is often played, especially with the congregational singing of the chorale. It was good to live with it this week.
O dearest Jesus, holy child,
Prepare a bed, soft, undefiled,
A holy shrine, within my heart,
That you and I need never part.

My heart for very joy now leaps;
My voice no longer silence keeps;
I too must join the angel-throng
To sing with joy his cradle-song:

Afterword: Know the Tune

Bach is always a teacher. Even in the most abstract of his late works -- and the Canonic Variations belong in this group, alongside the Musical Offering and the Art of Fugue -- he is always pointing the way, for those who somehow make it this far up the path. Beethoven, for one; it would be hard to imagine the Grosse Fugue for string quartet, or for that matter the great fugal passages from the Ode to Joy and certain passages in the late piano sonatas, without Bach's Art of Fugue.

The context of the Variations as they come to us in Bach's revision is what we now call the Leipzig Chorales, his last exploration of how an organist (or any musician) is to approach the Tunes of the church. Many of the chorales are set multiple times, as if to say "here is one way to play this Tune, and here is another" (for example, Komm, heiliger Geist, with two very different settings at the beginning of the collection).

Or in the terms I have used in this blog: Know the Tune.

We are now far beyond the levels I am exploring in my work, such as the basics of simply controlling the notes in Stille Nacht, or struggling to put one's ideas into a form. And, I think, even beyond T. Monk's advice to play the Tune for two hours without losing the groove, though I think he was pointing in the same direction as Bach in this matter.

Perhaps Bach is saying "This is how to use the contrapuntal tools to reach the theological center of the Tune." In the first Variation, it is still a child's tune, which is how Luther conceived it, writing the hymn for his children. Thus, we have such stanzas as the one I quoted the other day:
Look, look, dear friends, look over there!
What lies within that manger bare?
Who is that lovely little one?
The baby Jesus, God’s dear Son.
By the Fourth and Fifth Variations in the arrangement in which Bach put them in this final version, we are much deeper into the theology of the Incarnation -- yet, still with childlike innocence.

And, with these Variations, we are almost at the end. In the Leipzig Chorales, they are the next-to-last item, following seventeen large-scale chorale preludes. After the Variations, only one remains: Vor deinen Thron tret' ich.

Soli Deo gloria.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Chronicles of Advent

The Fourth Sunday of Advent
Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son; and thou shalt call his name Emmanuel (Isaiah 7:14 and St. Matthew 1:23)
When I was planning the choir season and saw this for the First Lesson and Gospel of this day, my heart leaped. We can sing the Handel! Recitative and Aria from Messiah, “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion.” And for what is probably the only year, the alto aria fits the youth choir to perfection. Our three young men are more tenors now than altos, but they can still sing in this range, along with the trebles. We can bring in a violinist (Leonardo Perez, a doctoral student at the university who is a delight to work with), and two young men of our parish on violoncello and bass for the continuo line, along with my friend Jean at the organ. The adult choir can join for the SATB ending.

And so it is; on this day, we sing. Days later as I write this, it rings in my heart.

Like the rest of Messiah, this aria and chorus are amazing. My opinion is that Handel wrote this piece in a burst of what was genuinely Divine Inspiration – how else could it have come into being, and in the breakneck speed in which he wrote it? The deeper one studies it, the more miraculous it is.

And the little recitative that begins it, the Scriptural tie to this day… less than thirty seconds, and absolutely perfect, right down to the tag line at the end: “God with us,” then the V-I cadence. We struggled with this in rehearsal, and had to sing it several times in the warmup; in the service, it was perfect. As with all that we sing, I want these words, this music, to take root in the hearts of our choristers.

I worried about the text. I could envision one of our twelve-year old boys raising his hand in rehearsal and asking “What is a virgin?” I asked my fellow-laborer in Christ (Nora) what to do; she was not encouraging. In essence, she advised me to dodge the question. Tell them to ask their parents at home, then call the parents of the child who raised the issue and tell them.

It did not come up. In a way, I wish it had, though I do not know how I could have addressed it in a rehearsal.

The virginity of St. Mary is one of the great Secrets of God, equal in stature to the other one: the bodily Resurrection of Christ from the dead. Both are thoroughly attested by Scripture, part of the central bedrock of Christian belief in all times and places -- until recently. The first is perhaps more scandalous than the last. It is so thoroughly unscientific. It is a rehash of legends from pagan mythology. It is, like the Resurrection, a pious fable tacked on generations later to suit the needs of the emerging church.

Or so they say.

And, like the Resurrection, it is absolutely true, whether the liberal theologians and clergy like it or not. Without it, there is no Incarnation; he is not Emmanuel, God with us, but just another teacher -- exactly as Gabriel explains to St. Mary at the Annunciation: "That holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God" (St. Luke 1:35). For something that is as readily knowable as these doctrines, it is amazing how they remain a secret. Without faith, they are as invisible as if they were buried on the back side of the moon.

Our young people are not going to hear about this doctrine in our parish, and probably not anywhere in the Episcopal Church, where neither Virgin Birth nor Resurrection are widely believed. But perhaps they will someday remember singing this little recitative and wonder what it means.

Tuesday: Bulletin Crazy Day

As expected, much of today is committed to the service bulletins for the coming weekend. The day is further complicated by the Christmas luncheon for staff and volunteers – close to two hours. Many of the volunteers are retired, and perfectly happy to while away the afternoon. I am chomping at the bit, restlessly longing to get onto the bench and to my proper duty. But there is more bulletin work, and (of course) more e-mails. And I am tired, worn out from a Monday filled with errands, grocery shopping, cooking and dishwashing.

I finally get around to practice around 3 pm, and I had to postpone my young student’s lesson to another day in order to get any practicing at all. I begin with piano improvisation, working with the chorale Es ist ein Ros’. That goes well enough, so I try Stille Nacht. And I discover that I do not Know the Tune. Worse still, others are at work in the church, hearing me mangle it. I cannot control the third phrase of this wide-ranging tune and repeatedly miss notes in any key other than B flat major, even playing it in unison. It is thoroughly embarrassing; I have been a church musician for upwards of forty years and I cannot play “Silent Night?”

The people who are at work move on to one of their tasks: testing the sound system. One of the clergy has complained about the wireless microphone. It is clear that my attempts at music are disturbing them as they test it and that they likewise think that they are disturbing me, so I close the lid, replace the cover, and bow out.

Some time later, my friend John comes downstairs and tells me that they are done. I go to the organ, and make a beginning with the Third Variation on Vom Himmel hoch. It is the hardest part of the set: "Some canonic variations on the Christmas hymn" as Bach calls it. And it was for this that I cancelled H’s lesson; I knew that if I did not make a start on it today, I could not play it on Saturday night.

I do a First Workout of the latter half of the variation, ninety minutes on about two and a half pages. It is a start.

[I wrote about the Canonic Variations here, when I played them two years ago, and my recording is here.]

The Feast of St. Thomas, Apostle

I am determined to learn Stille Nacht, and give it a good forty minutes at the piano, first thing after I hang up my overcoat, playing it right up until Matins. As I described the other day in “Knowing the Tune,” it continues to be ugly for quite a while, with many times that I cannot even keep the groove going for all of the wrong notes in the tune – and then, about twenty minutes into my work, it suddenly becomes very good indeed. I wish I had recorded it.

From that: straight into Matins, the church still in semidarkness on this shortest day of the year. It is all I can do to sing the appointed Psalms – the twenty-third, the one hundred and twenty-first (“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills…”). How is it that St. Thomas rates these loveliest of Psalms for the Matins of his Feast? And the lessons from the end of Job and the beginning of First Peter? Oh beloved Thomas, Apostle to India, friend of those who long for it to be true: pray for us.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…
The part that struck me today was from verses six and seven:
… though now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations: that the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honor and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ…
Making hash of Stille Nacht is not much for “manifold temptations,” nor even Bulletin Crazy Day in its semiannual appearance (we have a reprise early in Holy Week). But, small as these things are, they are indeed this week a trial of my faith. They are what Pressfield calls “Resistance,” for on a day like yesterday when I barely make it to the piano and then sound horrible when I do, it would be very easy to quit. Or when I tangle with the Third Variation, and find it every bit as challenging as I remember from two years ago – the thought arises “Why am I doing this?”

Please, dear Lord: may this work that we do, even when it is the stumbling over the simplest of things like a beginner, be “found unto praise and honor and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ.”
How glad we’ll be to find it so!
Then with the shepherds let us go
To see what God for us has done
In sending us his own dear Son.
I work hard at the organ today, all of it on the Variations. It goes well, but by the end of the day I have worked through only two of the five variations. It leaves a lot of work for Friday and Saturday.

One of my street friends comes in and listens for a while. He prays for me after I pray for him: “Help Cassie to play well this week and make good music.” I treasure this support, for God listens to the prayers of the poor. The prayers of people like me – perhaps not so much.

The choral rehearsals go well. The youth choir is singing two movements from “Ceremony of Carols,” and they have the potential to be quite good. We conclude the rehearsal with our annual rendition of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” which grows more memorable every year.

More than half of the adult choir rehearsal is devoted to first beginnings on music for the spring, including a set of Responses for the May evensong; Kenneth Leighton, and it will take us that long to learn them. But we are ready for Christmas Eve; the choir sounds terrific.
Look, look, dear friends, look over there!
What lies within that manger bare?
Who is that lovely little one?
The baby Jesus, God’s dear Son.

Welcome to earth, O noble Guest,
Through whom this sinful world is blest!
You turned not from our needs away!
How can our thanks such love repay?

[to be continued]

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Veni Emmanuel

As mentioned in the previous essay, I have been working on some of the concepts in the Mike Garson masterclass, and giving it higher priority – not so much more time from the week, but better time, first thing in the day when I am fresh. I had been feeling a little “stuck” in my improvisatory work, and I think that this work has gotten me out of the ditch.

Here is this morning’s improvisation. It is based on the three songs from the service, mostly the first:

- O come, O come, Emmanuel (Veni Emmanuel)
- Mary, when the angel’s word (Tempus adest floridum)
- Creator of the stars of night (Conditor Alme)

Garson talks about his “now” music, where he has no preconception before he starts playing. I am trying to move a little in that direction, and to be less concerned about formal structure. But not entirely unconcerned, and neither is Garson; I think that he is trusting his subconscious to keep the unity of the piece. I am not there yet.

For one thing, I think it important to begin and end in the home key, in this case B minor/major. In between, I planned to go to the relative major (D) for “Tempus adest floridum” (best known as the tune for “Good King Wenceslaus,” but here with a modern text), and did so, having played around some during the week on a transition into it from the plainsong, and out of it.

I did not preconceive a key for “Conditor Alme.” As it happened, it was mostly in G major, moving to C major (about as far from the home key of B as possible). Nor did I plan what to do after that, beyond getting back to tonic.

And I think it turned out pretty well. I can hear many things that showed up during the week’s practice, but I had no idea which of them would show up today, or in what context, and none of it is exactly like anything I did through the week. For those who might be interested, there is a Serious Mistake at 4:16 – having moved in a direction that was a bit unexpected, I tripped over a note and lost the rhythmic “groove” for a moment. Yuck. “You can play any notes, but stay with the groove.”

But one must get past the fear of such things. To paraphrase another master (William Porter, organist) – we miss notes in our repertoire; what’s the difference when we miss them in an improvisation?

The whole thing is rather spacious – lots of long notes, lots of quiet. That comes partly from the two plainsongs, but partly from the day – clear and very cold, the sunshine streaming in the south window, just a handful of people at the service – four, when I started. It felt like the music needed to be gentle, reflective, so I sought to go in that direction.

From 8:45 onward feels like a coda. I did not find the photographs for the YouTube clip until this afternoon, but the coda fits them well. Both photos (from the Hubble Space Telescope) are of the “Creator of the stars of night” in his workshop – they are areas where new stars are being made.

Some of this work with improvisation filters into my hymn accompaniment. Certainly, when it is the same tune (like the three in this one, all played later in the service), I have much more freedom with the accompaniment than I would had I not spent the time to “know the tune.” But it carries over into my organ playing, too. I do not think that I improvise well at the organ (I hope to, someday), but I am getting better at playing the hymns.

These are from last week’s choral service: Five Advent Hymns. Numbers are from the Episcopal Hymnal 1982.

- 65: Prepare the way, O Zion
- “People, look East” (from the supplement Wonder, Love and Praise)
- 72: Hark, the glad sound, the Savior comes
- 60: Creator of the stars of night
- 444: Blest be the God of Israel

They are from the organist’s point of view – that is, the microphone is close to the instrument and one hears much more organ sound than the congregation would hear out in the room. I post them as an example of what I aim to do with the hymns.

I could not have played this way five years ago, perhaps not even one year ago; I would have been tied much closer to the page. And I emphasize that such progress as I am making is not coming from explicit work with the hymn accompaniments; it is carry-over from that half-hour or so at the piano every morning. I do of course practice the hymns, but no more than I have for years, and perhaps a bit less these days.

The final hymn, however, is an important caution to the improviser. It is a “big” English tune, with a fully-written out accompaniment by its composer, Basil Harwood. When presented with such a hymn, the organist should play exactly what is on the page, and that is what I do, perhaps filling in a chord here and there.

There are times when improvisation is not a good idea. Just play the notes.

The photos are of our beloved little Pilcher, taken on a sunny winter day much like today.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Know the Tune, revisited

“Know the Tune” is one of the foundations of improvisation, alongside “Speak the Language.”

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.

The virtues are many:

• After two hours, you will definitely know the tune, especially if you have played it in both hands (and the pedals, if you are at the organ), in a variety of keys, and perhaps different modes (such as Minor or Dorian instead of Major).

• You learn to Keep Going, another cardinal virtue of improvisation. It doesn’t have to sound good; it can sound positively awful (you are practicing, after all). But it has got to stay with the groove. You will learn that keeping the rhythm going is more important than what notes you play. You will learn, also, to take “wrong” notes (even in the tune) and turn them into “right” notes by what follows – it is probably an unexpected dissonance, so you can resolve it, use it as a pivot into an unexpected new key, repeat it so that it becomes an “ornament” to the tune or part of the form, or even an essential motive. A first step is to see if you can repeat it, make it a “variation” instead of a “mistake.”

• Most of all, as Garson explains, you will use up all of your “licks” in the first twenty minutes or so. Then there will be a while where it is not so good. And after that… you will begin to play as you never have before. You will find sonorities, approaches to the tune, that would not have occurred to you.

• And, best of all, it is fun. The only “pressure” is to stay with the groove; otherwise, anything goes.

Upon reflection, this is much of what I did when I was beginning to improvise at the organ and had finally gotten beyond harmonizing scales. I would sit at the organ on Fridays and Saturdays and play around with the Tune for a long time, very often an hour and sometimes two. And the “good” stuff wouldn’t start happening until well along into that time, exactly as Garson says. I would try to remember what I did (a tape recorder or similar device helps, and a pencil with some staff paper) and use it as the basis for Sunday’s improvisation.

Nowadays, it goes more quickly, especially if I have already worked with the Tune. This happens more and more with the middle service improvisations, for I have made it around the liturgical year a couple of times with improvising a prelude every Sunday. But in some respects it is even more important with a Tune that I know well; I have to get all of the stuff that I have already done with it out of my system in order to find something new to say about it. The ultimate example for this (as with almost anything else musical) is Bach; consider the chorales that he set multiple times for the organ, and how differently he approached it the second (or third, or fourth) time.

I have been working at the piano in this manner, with adaptation to my circumstances, for a couple of weeks.

For one thing, my encounter with the Yamaha and Casio hybrid pianos had already caused me to change my work day, putting higher value on playing the Steinway in the church. I go upstairs, take the cover off the piano, raise the lid, say the prayer, and play for at least a half-hour, no matter how much other work I must do. Not two hours; I cannot justify that. But a half hour at the least, sometimes forty-five minutes or so. Before, if I had a lot of organ practicing and other work to do, I would often go many days without playing the piano, then scramble to catch up on Friday and Saturday. And I would just push the piano cover back, leaving the lid down, because I was always in a hurry.

No. For the time that remains to me, I am going to enjoy playing this piano. I am going to luxuriate in the visual beauty of the strings and plate and soundboard, the immediacy of the sound, the fabulous acoustic, the surroundings, the divine Presence in the tabernacle, its candle flickering.

I think that this attitude helps my music. It makes me more aware that it is all Gift.
It is not to be despised, or taken for granted.

I begin with the unison tune, in the key that I intend for Sunday’s improvisation – typically a fifth above the key of the first hymn. I use the same one or two or three tunes all week, the ones that will be in the Sunday service. I sing along with the solfege syllables, especially if I am less familiar with the tune. As the Tune attains a comfort level, I add things, let it take me where it wants to go.

I do not often use the metronome, because I want to have the opportunity to change tempo between variations. But I do keep the “groove” – the meter and rhythm and general feel - going. And I do not stop; if it is one tune, I aim for it to be a continuous set of variations. There might be what sounds like a stop – a whole note chord, perhaps several whole notes tied. Or rests. But underneath these long notes and rests, the pulse continues. Thus, when the music moves on, it continues to feel like the same composition.

If my intent is to work with multiple tunes, I might move to the second tune in the dominant or other related key, as if I were building a sonata form, and I might continue in that manner, with development of one or both tunes and a recapitulation – and then, if there is time, continue with more variations. If a two-tune improvisation is my goal, it often seems to work better to work with just one tune the first day, the second tune the second day (so that it is thoroughly worked out and “known”), and both tunes from then on.

When it is time to stop, I make my best effort to bring the piece to a convincing conclusion, for that is something I must practice doing. If the first attempt is not so good, I might stretch it on into a little coda so that I can make another attempt.

There is a final benefit: Later in the day, I will hopefully make it over to the Pilcher. I open its fallboard, sit down, turn on the music lamp, say another prayer, and dig into my work on the repertoire and the hymns, often challenging, hard work that pushes me to the limit.

And I find that this, too, is Gift. It is not to be despised, or taken for granted.

Footnote: Here (again) is the link to the Mike Garson masterclass.

I have now listened to the four parts – roughly two hours – twice through, parts of it more than that. I may share a few more ideas in future essays, but I do not want to say too much; it is his work, copyrighted, and I hope he makes some money on it.

In one sense, there is hardly anything in it that is practical. Mostly, he sits at his piano and talks, occasionally demonstrating things. There is not much “nuts and bolts” information about jazz scales, or harmonies, or anything that one might expect in a master class: “I teach by inspiration,” he says in one of the videos. But there is a lot that has made me think about my playing, and I consider this all the more valuable, more so than any amount of “nuts and bolts,” and more applicable to what I do, which differs in important ways from what he does.

And there are nuggets of pure gold, such as the one I have here described from Mr. Monk. There is excellent advice on Slow Practice and working on details, one measure or a half measure at a time. There is a lot about the spiritual nature of what we are doing, of listening to the Higher Self, and seeking to find that in one’s students. And healing: for oneself, other people, and the world.

I will not work in this manner forever; there is much else that I should do, such as contrapuntal work, additional work with forms, and technical development – things like scales, arpeggios, exercises drawn from repertoire.

And imitation of the masters: that must wait for another essay.

[Added Feb. 2017: Here is a later essay, related to this one, and a YouTube example of a practice session using the ideas described above.]