Friday, February 23, 2018

About those wrong notes, Part Two

Mostly, it is the Startle Reflex.
That is why I have the “yips,” and the mangled playing that results.

After some introspection, I realized about a month ago that the Startle Reflex, alongside Impatient Haste, was at the root of my difficulties.

In terms of the Alexander Technique (which is where I learned of it), whenever one is startled, several physical things happen. Blood pressure rises, pulse quickens, adrenaline happens. The neck tightens in a spasm, throwing the head forward – the exact opposite of the Technique’s basics of “Neck free, Head forward and up.”

Whenever one plays a wrong note, the Startle Reflex results. It may be subtle, momentary, but it is there.
One must quickly return to balance. Think “neck free. Head forward and up.” Breathe.

The essence of my practice method outlined in these pages – of any worthwhile practice method – is to avoid wrong notes from the very first reading. Slow practice. Practice with the rhythms. Small bite-sized bits of music, a few measures or a phrase at most.

But wrong notes happen, and with them the Startle Reflex.

I learned that I did not allow myself to recover into a relaxed state of poise before repeating the bit that went wrong. I was not rushing back into it – a temptation to which I was subject for decades, to my detriment, playing the passage again and again with no pause as if by immediate re-play, I could erase the fact that the mistake ever happened.

But I was not fully relaxing. I entered the playthrough with a tiny bit of excess tension, a tiny bit of heightened blood pressure and pulse. And by repetitions (even with the correct notes in the second playthrough, and the third), I built this tiny bit of tension into my playing of the passage. Every time I played it from then on – even years later upon returning to the piece - the underlying tension was part of it.

In similar manner, when I worked on “the rhythms” and I was in a hurry (which is most of the time, for there is never enough practice time), I was not allowing enough time on the notes of repose (the long notes that begin and finish the rhythmic groupings). It was subtle; I would estimate just one or two milliseconds, but again, it was there, constantly in the pieces where I was working especially hard. Practicing in this manner for an hour, a second hour, a third, day after day, I was building in a subtle underlay of tension. The tension, the slight unease and hurry, would be a part of my manner of playing the passage from then on.

And in the added energy of live performance before God and everyone, all of this would come to the surface, causing my brain to “short-circuit” for a moment, just long enough to throw me off track and demolish a couple of measures of passagework.

I am working on this. I think I am making progress, but it is slow. Between every repetition, breathe. Get fully settled, poised. If there is a wrong note, stop immediately. Breathe. Get fully settled. Then play the bit again, calmly. The calm is almost more important than getting the right notes the second time. Leave enough time on each rhythmic group to fully settle before going on to the next. My evensong prelude for February went pretty well; that was encouraging.

But I am not putting in enough time on the bench. For personal reasons, I have not practiced regularly since Christmas. All too many weeks, it has ended up being just two or three days a week – a couple of times, just Saturday, and one Sunday that will remain nameless, none at all. I had hoped to at least have a Sunday warmup, but did not even manage that, my first playing of the day (and the week) being live improvisation. These matters (along with Advent before them) have likewise resulted in my absence from the Music Box for nearly three months.

David Allen (the author of “Getting Things Done”) wrote somewhere that he is often asked “How can I prioritize my work?” He always asks back “What’s your job?” In Christian terms, “What is your Vocation?” (Allen expresses it as “Why are you on this planet?”) My vocation had a significant shift at the turn of the year. So far this year, music, and especially keyboard music, has been a much smaller part of it.

I am not at present happy with myself as an organist, or pianist for that matter – my piano improvisations these two months have been decidedly substandard, as have the ones at the organ. But I have been pleased by some of the choral music of which I have been a part, especially the Mathias anthem “Let the people praise thee, O God,” the Choral Evensongs for January and February, and our Youth Choir’s recent visit to St. James, Chicago. There was some Real Music in these services. I hope there will be more, perhaps even yet some it through me at the keyboard.

Jesu, juva.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Church Music: an essay

A lot of young church musicians do not survive the transition from school to church. Some of the fault is with the way organists and choral musicians are trained. They are schooled almost exclusively toward the goal of becoming the finest performers possible at the organ, and toward working with highly skilled young adult choristers, all of them with fabulous voices and quick and active minds. They sing and play only the finest literature; the pipe organs at their disposal are of the highest quality. They work at minutiae to bring their work to the highest possible standard. Unless they are very fortunate, they learn very little about working with children, or with teenagers, or with amateur adult singers of all ages, more elderly than otherwise. They learn nothing about "contemporary music" (meaning “anything with guitars”) except that it is to be avoided at all costs. They learn nothing about working with difficult clergy or parishioners, which probably is the downfall of more young church musicians than any other factor.


You graduate. You get a part-time position in a typical parish. The organ is a Baldwin electronic, circa 1970, with several of the pedal contacts corroded into dysfunction. The choir is, well, a typical parish choir: let's say eight persons, one of whom is under the age of sixty. There is one baritone who can sing tenor, sort of, in a pinch -- but he works every other Sunday morning. There is one other bass, age seventy-six, who has had three heart attacks and now has a large, wobbly voice because his cardiovascular fitness is barely enough to allow him to walk into the choir room. And he does not see very well. The other six are women. One of them played clarinet in her high school band (that was in the 1950's), so she reads music, sort of. The others all sing "by ear." Sort of.

A variety of vocal and other problems are in evidence; "white" tone, bleaty vibratos, no head voice. One woman has vocal nodules (as it proved) which she got, she tells you, from when she was in a mental hospital after her husband died "and I screamed, night and day." Another woman (the one who is under sixty) is epileptic, and more likely to have a seizure when she is stressed -- like, for example, in the middle of the anthem during the Christmas Eve service the previous year.

Since you have never worked with any singer who has any vocal problems whatsoever, you are at a loss. You want the choir to sound like your college choir, which had sung the B Minor Mass that spring before graduation. You want to do music like that: Bach and Palestrina and Schutz and Byrd and Tallis and all the rest. But the music library consists entirely of illegal Xeroxes, and one of your first moves is a day of carting it all off to the recycling depot.

"We would like a children's choir." That is what they told you in the interview, and is one of the reasons you accepted the position, for you studied the RSCM method at college and observed the excellent choral program at the local Episcopal parish near the campus. They neglected to mention that there are currently no children in the parish. None. There is not one soul in the parish under the age of thirty-five. And the community, a small Pennsylvania town, is dying; unemployment is near twenty percent, and anyone who was able moved away years ago, so there is not a plethora of children anywhere in town.

"Hmmm.... I guess I'll have to put that on the back burner, for now."

And here comes Sunday morning with that Baldwin. You have never played an electronic organ, much less one of that vintage -- early transistor/printed circuit, where every "stop" sounds pretty much the same, and pushing down a whole row of stop tabs does little to change the sound, either in volume or timbre. You pull out the Bach Orgelbuchlein; it sounds horrible. You try a Mendelssohn sonata movement: ditto.

You are, again, at a loss.

I will spare you a discussion of the Vicar, who is entirely innocent of any sound training or experience in liturgy, homiletics, or, most of all, music -- though he considers himself an expert in all of these fields. His idea of good church music is "On Eagles' Wings." His idea of good liturgy is when he "improvises" the Eucharistic prayer, or "paraphrases" the Gospel reading from memory, leaving out some of the important bits. The first words spoken in the liturgy each Sunday are a cheerful "Good morning!!!!"

But I had best not spare you the Contemporary Service on Sunday evenings. "We have a praise band," they said in the interview. It proves to consist of three Boomer-age lady guitarists (now in their seventies) who think they are the second coming of Joni Mitchell. They know the basic three chords and play with what is commonly called the "Catholic strum." That is all they can do; they cannot handle other chords, or other strumming techniques, or (heaven forbid) finger-picking. You did not take Guitar Methods 101 at school -- indeed, it was not offered -- so, again, you are at a loss. But, being a good soldier, you join them on the electric piano (a twenty-year old Clavinova with a few dead notes), and do your best. You learn the eight songs which are the complete repertoire of the Service. About a dozen people show up on Sunday evenings, mostly ex-Cursillistas. The Vicar is in his element, loving the "casual informality" of the atmosphere.

After a year or so of this, many a young church musician decides that a career in restaurant table service and dishwashing would be more to his liking. Or maybe truck driving.


The secret, if there is one, lies in that woman who wants your help in learning how to somehow sing again after screaming her voice away in the mental hospital. And that bass, who has sung in choirs since childhood and loves music and has watched his voice, his strength, and his health disappear, and is just trying to hang on and finish what he has carried thus far, a life which the Psalmist described thus: "I will sing to the LORD as long as I live; I will praise my God while I have my being." And that woman with the epilepsy, who loves God -- indeed, God is her sole reliance -- and wants to sing, and does not want to make a scene this Christmas. But if making a scene is what is going to happen, she is still going to be there, because it her choir, and her parish, and most of all her Lord who was born that night.

Despite yourself, if you are lucky (or better, "blessed"), you care about these people. It is not because you are supposed to (though you are); you just do. You can't help it. You recognize that you have been given the responsibility of helping these individuals grow into the fullness of the stature of Christ. The tools at your disposal, such as the Baldwin and the choral library, are not the best, but they are what you have.

You pray a lot.

There is nothing else for it; you pray so much that you become known for it. You teach the same things over and over, and it appears that it makes no difference -- but, sometimes, after many repetitions, it does. You send cards to your choristers when they are sick; you visit them in the hospital when you can (an aside: this is much harder to do than it used to be, because they often do not permit people like choral directors, who are neither family nor authorized church professionals, to so much as discern what room the person is in, or even if they are in the hospital at all.) I emphasize that this is not because you are supposed to, or with any end in view (such as building your choir); you can't help it.

You figure out how to get the best possible results out of the Baldwin -- a task for which your academic training has given you no preparation whatsoever -- and you play with care and integrity for every service. You learn how to play your eight Cursillo songs with the "Joni Mitchell girls" -- and you find that, despite yourself, you care even about them. And the people who show up at the Sunday evening service. You find that they, with the handful who attend the traditional morning service, are the lifeblood of that little town, fighting to keep it alive.

And, just maybe, the hardest of all, the Vicar. You come to recognize that he is as clueless as you are, and that is the source of much of his bluster. To him, this is a dead-end parish in a dead-end town, and a dead-end for his career. No bishopric or cushy suburban parish for him, because now that he is middle-aged, all of a sudden the ideal bishop is in his forties. His seminary training prepared him for the work of ministry about as well as your conservatory training did for church music, and he has been trying to figure it out "on the job" ever since.


Lest you think that this essay is autobiographical, it is not. For one thing, my first post-graduate instrument was an Allen, not a Baldwin. And I have never lived or worked in Pennsylvania. And I had worked as a part-time church musician for some years before going to graduate school; this was of inestimable value. Nonetheless, I made many, many mistakes. I still do. Two of the persons I described are more-or-less based on choristers with whom I had the privilege of working at previous parishes where I have served, and who taught me much by their glorious witness to the power of God.

And I have entirely given up on hospital visits.


Perhaps you stay in the parish, despite everything. One day, a vestry member says "Gee, maybe we should think about a pipe organ!" Over time, you assemble a choral library of sorts. Your choir grows from eight to eleven. A family with children moves to town and joins the church; you incorporate the children into the choir (and figure out how to work with them in this setting), and now the choir is fourteen persons. A new Vicar comes, and she is a little easier to work with, partly because she sang in a church choir when she was a child and it was essential to her vocation.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps you play that Baldwin to your dying day. Perhaps the Vicar retires, and the parish cannot afford to hire a replacement. Perhaps they cannot afford to keep you on staff, either. Perhaps the place closes down altogether. Perhaps the whole community closes down.

None of this matters. What matters is each one of those singers, and the people out in the pews, and even that Vicar. Their spiritual growth and welfare matters. On the Day of Doom, the Baldwin, the illegal Xeroxes, the guitars, the vestments, the church building, even the town in which you lived -- all of it will have been calcined to dust. What will remain is the people, your brothers and sisters, standing with you and singing the glories of the Lamb. You are given a small part in preparing them for that Day.

No one said it would be easy.

(Adapted slightly from my old LiveJournal, Nov. 25, 2009)

Friday, November 24, 2017

About those wrong notes...

Item: postlude at the All Saints’ Day service (Fantasia on Sine Nomine, by Craig Phillips). I came apart during a passage about three pages from the end.

Item: postlude on November 19 (Toccata: “St. David’s Day”, by Ralph Vaughan Williams). I lost it at the top of the final page.

Item: postlude on Thanksgiving Day (Nun danket alle Gott, by J. S. Bach, from the Leipzig Chorales). I came apart at the top of the final page.

All three of these were serious mishaps, where I lost control of the playing for a measure or more. All were in fairly difficult passages, which I had thoroughly practiced and considered well-prepared. It was the Bach that scares me, for that is a piece I have performed scores of times. After the liturgy, I got back on the bench and played the piece perfectly, with complete comfort. It is always challenging and needs preparation, but I am confident that I can play it.

Until now.

If I were a golfer, I would start muttering about “the yips.” A bit of poking around finds that yes, the condition affects musicians as well as golfers and other athletes. It is described in places as a “focal task-specific dystonia.” It most often affects experienced players who have been doing the same thing for decades. It afflicts 1% to 2% of musicians at some point in their careers, men more than women. One article lists some common triggers, among them “a sudden increase in playing/practice.” That could be it, for I pushed hard through the latter part of October to prepare for the week that included All Saints and Choral Evensong.

There is no cure. Intensified practice, the musician’s (and athlete’s) first impulse when something is not right, is not helpful. There are treatments, such as Botox injections; I am not going there. There are “tricks” of various sorts, some of which I will try. It is going to take some experimentation, maybe a lot of it. And perhaps it is nothing, just a string of wrong notes. But three times in a month seems a bit much, and this feels different from the thousands of wrong notes I have played over the years.

For the present, I think that I will do the following:
- Quit playing repertoire of the sort that has triggered these collapses.
- Probably quit playing Evensong preludes. Excepting the principal feasts, this is the only occasion where I play “big” repertoire. At the least, I have crossed out the “Great” C minor prelude and fugue scheduled for January, a repeat of the Vaughan Williams Prelude and Fugue scheduled for February, and the Mendelssohn Fourth Sonata scheduled for March. I might try improvisations for evensong instead of playing repertoire.
- Avoid difficult music for the Eucharistic voluntaries on routine Sundays.
- Focus more of my practicing on improvisation, and do more of it in service playing.

That leaves some areas of concern: what am I going to do with anthem accompaniments? There are several of them which are difficult for me in the next few weeks, starting with a Michael Haydn anthem for Lessons and Carols, December 3. So far, I have had no problems of this sort with accompaniments, even the difficult ones, so I will hope that my brain considers this enough of a different task so as to be completely separate.

And what about the principal feasts? We’ll have to take them as they come, and lean toward easier music rather than more difficult. For example, I am done with the Phillips piece that I played on All Saints: never again.

I gather that the condition comes and goes unpredictably. That gives reason to occasionally dip my foot back into the deep water and see how it goes.

Steven Pressfield writes: “For the professional, the stakes are high and real.” This is my paid employment, and I am now considerably less fit for it than I was a year ago. “A musician is only as good as his last performance,” as they say. For now, I think that I can still earn my keep; I can play the hymns, train the choirs, do the other parts of my job. When you get down to it, playing organ literature is the least important part of what I do.

For a while now, a photo of Keith Jarrett has been on my “door.” It is there mostly because I seek to emulate his long-form piano improvisations, but now I have another reason: he has overcome a disorder that kept him from playing – even privately, at home – for years.

I have been blessed with good health and no serious injuries or physical problems with my playing. Most everyone who does this professionally runs into one thing or another somewhere along the line. Now it is my turn.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Wachet auf, and a YouTube update

Some while back, I posted a rant about Microsoft and the demise of Movie Maker, which made it easy to prepare MP4 files for YouTube. It turns out that in this instance, my steaming about the Evil Powers at Microsoft was unfounded. One can, with slightly more difficulty, get the job done with another Microsoft product: PowerPoint, at least in its 2016 version (which is what is on my computer). PowerPoint is not something I normally use, which may be part of why it has taken me two months for this idea to occur to me.

As a trial run, I prepared this YouTube clip of my piano improvisation from last Sunday. It is mostly based on the chorale Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, which in turn is based on last Sunday’s Gospel, the story of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (St. Matthew 25:1-13). Because we were to shortly sing another song based on the same story, I included it as well: “Give me oil in my lamp,” starting at about the 6 minute mark in the video.

As for the PowerPoint procedure, here it is – for, in defense of my slowness of mind, I did not find anything along these lines in a Net search for how to do this. Then again, maybe it is so obvious to everyone else that no one has felt it useful to explain it.

• Run PowerPoint.
• In the headings at the top, choose “Insert”
• From the ribbon below the headings, choose “Pictures” (or other things, such as photo albums, or further to the right, Video)
• At the right end of the ribbon, labeled “Media,” choose “Audio.”
• That gives a little drop-down with two items; choose “Audio on My PC” which opens a File Manager box where you can locate the audio file that you want.
• After some few minutes, one ends up with a PPTX file – that is, a PowerPoint presentation – with your chosen Audio file under the photo(s).
• It needs one more tweak: there is an audio control/volume icon in the middle of the picture, which you don’t want in the YouTube file. Right-click on the icon to select it, and choose “Send to Back.” This puts it behind your picture.
• Now you can save the file. Under the “File” heading, choose “Save As,” and in the box that pops up, find “Save as type.” It has a long drop-down list, which includes what we want: MPEG-4 Video (*.mp4). Choose this, give it a filename (which will appear at the beginning of the video) and hit “Save.”
• After another longish while, you now have an MP4 file, which can be uploaded to YouTube.

Despite finding a way to do it, I do not expect that I will often post to YouTube.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

A Declaration of Religious Principles

The following was formerly the Declaration of Religious Principles of the American Guild of Organists. The AGO no longer appears to adhere to any religious principles, though many of its members do. This statement is old-fashioned in its language, and perhaps its concepts, and I emphasize that it no longer reflects the “mind and intention” of the AGO in any official way.

I find that this document, at one time available from the AGO as a poster, is not available on the Internet. To remedy that and in hopes that it may be of encouragement to some, here it is:

Soli Deo Gloria
Declaration of Religious Principles

For the greater glory of God, and for the cause of worthy music in this land, we, being severally members of the American Guild of Organists, do declare our mind and intention in the things following:

We believe that the office of music in Divine Worship is a Sacred Oblation before the Most High.

We believe that they who are set as Choir Directors and as Organists in the House of God ought themselves to be people of devout conduct teaching the ways of earnestness to the Choirs committed to their charge.

We believe that the unity of purpose and fellowship of life between Clergy and Choirs should be everywhere established and maintained.

We believe that at all times and in all places it is meet, right, and our bounden duty to work and to pray for the advancement of Divine Worship in the holy gifts of strength and nobleness; to the end that God’s House may be purges of its blemishes, that the minds of all may be instructed, that the honor of that House may be guarded in our time and in the time to come.

Wherefore we do give ourselves with reverence and humility to these endeavors, offering up our works and our lives in the Name of Him, without Whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy. Amen.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses…

One of my Wednesday morning tasks is setting up the choir room for the afternoon’s Youth Choir rehearsal. It is my custom as I put each chair into place to pray for the young person who will sit there. Mostly, I “hold them to the light” as the Friends say.

On this day, I had an impression so strong and vivid that it might be a vision: two of these young people as Saints. Not just any saint: the big-time people, the sort who have their name on the calendar.

Most likely, it is no more than an overactive imagination on All Saints’ Day, after reading the Epistle for Matins (Hebrews 11:32—12:3), about people being stoned and sawn asunder, destitute, afflicted, tormented. Most of the paths that lead to that kind of sanctity are thoroughly unpleasant (as compared to what most people would consider a "good life"), not infrequently including a gruesome and horrible death. I do not wish this upon my young choristers, no more than Saint Mary wished a crucifixion for her Son (and that was her gruesome and horrible death, the sword piercing through her heart as she stood by him on that day when the sun refused to shine).

But I do wish for all of them to be saints, whatever that involves for them. “And I want to be one, too,” as the song says. On this blessed and high feast, my “vision” (or whatever it was) is a good reminder that it is possible. These two children, or some other child in the choir, or one of the adults I work with, may in the end be so glorious as to put the sun and moon to shame with their brightness. They might walk as equals with Francis and Clare, or Martin Luther, or Julian of Norwich, or Bonhoeffer, or J. S. Bach.

I used to think of the “cloud of witnesses” as the saints in glory, looking down upon us, praying for us, cheering us on as we struggle forward. And that is reason enough to “run with patience the race that is set before us.” That is true enough, but increasingly, I am aware that the witnesses are also these children in the choir, their parents, my wife, my friends, the people who hear me play or sing in my rehearsals, indeed all those with whom I come in contact. They, likewise, are reason enough to “run with patience.”

O God, the King of saints, we praise and magnify thy holy Name for all thy servants who have finished their course in thy faith and fear; for the blessed Virgin Mary; for the holy patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs; and for all other thy righteous servants, known to us and unknown; and we beseech thee that, encouraged by their examples, aided by their prayers, and strengthened by their fellowship, we also may be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light; through the merits of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen (BCP p. 489)

Saturday, October 28, 2017

A followup: "If you cannot preach like Peter..."

If you cannot preach like Peter,
If you cannot pray like Paul,
You can tell the love of Jesus
And say he died for all.
(from the spiritual “There is a balm in Gilead”)
I hasten to add a corrective to yesterday’s essay about improvisation in the French manner. Namely:

Just start playing.
Improvise. Have fun with it.
Whatever your skill level, do it.

I was giving the impression (and, I must say, Dupré likewise gives the impression in his course) that if you have not devoted a thousand hours or so to high-speed scales in thirds and sixths in all keys, nor gained effortless fluency with instant arpeggiated harmonization of any note in any key, you shouldn’t attempt to improvise.

That impression is possibly the biggest obstacle to improvisation: like I wrote a couple of times in yesterday’s essay, “I will never ever play like that!” That is, of course, absolutely true. I (and presumably you, the reader) will never improvise like Mr. Latry, or Gerre Hancock, or Peter Planyevsky, or Paul Manz. Or Keith Jarrett, or Bill Evans, or Mike Garson.

Such thoughts must not stop me (and you) from playing. Here, now, with the knowledge and technical equipment that we have. Ultimately, such thoughts (or more precisely, the despair that arises from them) are the work of the Adversary. “You will never get it right. You might as well give up.” Such thoughts come to me at times, especially when I have played badly, or failed as a choral director in rehearsal (I did so this past Wednesday, when I got angry at one of the choral sections and was hurtful to these people, whom I love.)

The Adversary says “You must be perfect, or you are worthless.”
The Holy Paraclete says “You are a beloved child of God, and you shall be perfect, when I have completed My work.”

Someday I should write about the concept of “Words.” I got the idea from Mike Krzyzewski, who coaches a certain well-known collegiate basketball program, and (as he recommended) I developed my own list of Words. They are among the things on my Door, down below the pictures of composers.

The first three are the Cardinal Virtues, and I think of them a lot. They have been a light in the darkness ever since St. Paul wrote them:

Fides (Faith)
Spes (Hope)
Agape (Charity)

Fides gives us confidence that God has given us what we need – indeed, precisely what we need, no more and no less – to do what He desires of us in our place and time. No, I will never improvise like Olivier Latry. But he has to play at the Cathedral of Notre Dame; I don’t. And I think God may have given me some gifts (or trained me by experience, often unwillingly on my part, to where I can do what He wants done here) that Mr. Latry may lack, because he does not need them.

Spes teaches us that we can grow and learn. One day in fact, we shall be fully formed in the image of Christ. That includes being fully formed in the exercise of our musical gifts.

Agape reminds us that all of this is for the benefit of the people around us, our sisters and brothers. Without Agape, all of it is but “sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” Cantare amantis est.

Enough of this. Time to practice what I have been preaching.

Friday, October 27, 2017

An improvisation, and a way forward

Last night, I had the pleasure of attending a concert by Olivier Latry, organist of Notre Dame de Paris, professor of organ at the Paris Conservatoire. My respect for him is very great; he is my “go-to” person for his recordings of the complete organ works of Messiaen. Here is one of his Messiaen tracks from YouTube, the final movement of the Livre du Saint-Sacrement. He played no Messiaen in last night’s concert, but there was plenty of other fine music, notably (in my opinion) his playing of Duruflé’s Prelude and Fugue on the name of Alain.

And an improvisation.

I did not time it, but my estimate is that it ran about twenty minutes. It was based on the chant “Dies irae” plus a cheerful triadic tune often played by the local university marching band, as well as polka bands everywhere:
In heaven there is no beer:
That’s why we drink it here.
The envelope containing the tunes was solemnly presented to Mr. Latry; after some difficulty opening it, he set the tunes on the music rack and played them for the audience. After a few moments, off he went, starting with the “In heaven” tune – dark, in minor, low in the tenor/bass register. That proved to be the main theme of the improvisation, complete with a fine large four-voice fugue before a concluding toccata passage. “Dies irae” was in a decidedly secondary role, though it was present as a dark undertone.

In conversation afterwards, my friend Jean and I wondered how he could do such a thing as this. Both of us have heard many improvisations after the French manner, and they often come across as somewhat formulaic. Latry’s piece on this night did not seem that way at all. It seemed more a creation of the moment rather than random tunes pasted into a form.

Some thoughts, and a way forward:

I admit to a twinge of discouragement as I drove home. I will never, ever play like that!

As I have written elsewhere, “Someone is always better. Don’t let that bother you.” That helped, as did the corollary: “Be the best that you can be.” That thought leads to the organ bench, and perhaps renewed intensity to my work on improvisation. At present I am overwhelmed with repertoire and anthem accompaniments to prepare for the next fortnight of services, but at least there are three piano improvisations in the music list to keep me working at the skill.

“Be the best that you can be” also leads me to think more seriously: How did he do that?

Upon a night’s sleep and consideration, I suggest some possibilities. The improvisation was in essence Theme and Variations; he may have had that form in mind before the evening began, at least as one of several possibilities. The key (though not the mode: lots of movement between major and minor, and probably other modes) was that of the two tunes, and I do not recall any significant modulations from the home key, not in the sense of a sonata-allegro form or even an ABA ternary form (staying in the home key is fully appropriate for Theme and Variations). That covers two of the major decisions the player must make.

There was plenty of variety in color and dynamics, plenty of rise and fall of energy level. At one point I noticed how my heart was racing, my palms sweating as he built to an intermediate climax on full organ, and I was grateful for being swept away by the music (as I was, beginning to end). [I will add that Keith Jarrett does this too, at the piano; it is one of the strengths of his long-form improvisations.]

There were elements that I recognized – the fugue, several passages of toccata figuration with the tune in double pedals, a couple of hymnlike variations in homophonic chords (like the one at the very beginning), some unison lines, one of them taking it down to the slow-speaking bottom note of the keyboard on a reed stop that he seemed to particularly like.

Aside from the unteachable genius of the thing, most of the rest was virtuosity of passagework in hands and feet.

That is why the second volume of Dupré’s improvisation course begins with a “Table of daily exercises at the piano” - pages of scales in thirds, sixths, octaves in all major and minor keys, as well as chromatically (adding fourths and tritones to the other intervals). Then arpeggiated chords – triads, seventh chords of all sorts. Discussion of pedal scales and exercises to attain an equal level of virtuosity with the feet. Dupré titles this first chapter: “The Piano, basis of technique at the Organ.”

My eyes glaze over and despair sets in. But at least I can “see in a glass darkly” how this could be done. Mr. Latry has most certainly done these things, and I would suspect that he continues to work at them regularly. I suspect, also, that he knows the two-volume Dupré course intimately as student, performer and teacher, for it has been the foundation of the French manner of improvisation for decades.

Dupré then turns to Harmony in chapter two. He begins with the observation that the player must have a spontaneous, immediate facility with harmonization, a knowledge of every possible chord that could harmonize each note of a melody [the jazzmen say this too, in their own way]. Pages of exercises follow: triads, chords of the seventh and ninth, modulations, “resolution of polytonal aggregations” (p. 23) – or as Mr. Hancock used to say, “Salvation is just a half-step away.” Again, in all major and minor keys, with the goal of the absolute and effortless harmonic control that someone like Mr. Latry demonstrates.

This is a long path.
But it is the path that, I suspect, has brought Mr. Latry to his present level of skill as an improviser.

Dupré eventually gets around to the treatment of Themes and their analysis as to how they can best be presented rhythmically, harmonically, etc. – and contrapuntally, with canon, imitation, ornamented chorale with contrapuntal accompaniment (e.g., after the manner of Bach), fugue. And then, forms: binary, ternary, symphonic forms, many others.

Some of the finest improvisers, after years of work, reach this level. These are the players that Jean and I have heard who play amazingly, and with great effect, but their work has a hint of the formulaic. They have mastered all of Dupré’s formulas.

Mr. Latry (and a handful of others: among the Frenchmen, I put Daniel Roth in this category, and certainly Messiaen when he was still with us) has gone beyond this. He has made all of this work so natural and automatic that he probably does not need to think about it at all. Like Keith Jarrett at the piano, he simply starts to play, with at most some general ideas as to form – which may, in the execution, turn in quite a different direction than it began.

Again: I will never, ever play like that!

[Edited to add: There is another side to this - see the next essay.]
[See also this, from Glenn Osborne's fine improvisation blog, as to his theory of "how do they do this?" -- deeper study of solfege, harmony and counterpoint in the French system than is typical in the American training of organists and other musicians.]

What brought me back down to earth this morning was my humble little clavichord. After Matins I opened it up and improvised for a while, simple four-bar phrases in G major. The clavichord by its nature works against any thoughts of virtuosic display. It rewards quiet, careful playing – at least for me at my elementary stage as a player of this instrument.

Mr. Latry’s improvisation and its ripples this morning have nonetheless brought me to a revelation. Dupré’s course has been on my shelf for decades, ever since Gerre Hancock named it in a workshop as essential – this was in my first years as an organist, when I was self-taught and working toward my Associate certificate (AAGO), before graduate school. Hancock’s own book on improvisation is probably a better starting place now, but he had not then written it.

Back then, I spent much time on the first, “preparatory” volume of Dupré. This work was what got me through the improvisation requirement for the AAGO (barely, with the minimal passing grade). The second volume frightened me so thoroughly that I have hardly touched it. Not least, it is in French; I do not think that it is available in translation. But as Hancock said all those years ago, “Don’t let that put you off. It is easy French.” And it is, most of it musical terminology.

Paging through the book this morning, all of a sudden, without realizing how I have gotten here, I see that I am ready for it.

I will likely never get far up the path – there are too many weeks when there are other more pressing demands on my practice time. I may never get past the first chapter with all its forbidding pages of exercises in thirds and sixths and arpeggios of every sort. But I think that I must take care not to get stuck there. I think that after some work on these things, I could profit much from the rest of the book.

Jesu, juva.

A YouTube search for “Olivier Latry improvisation” brings many results. Here is one that has not so many views as most of them. I chose this because it shows him at work with something a lot more important than a polka song and a showpiece improvisation in the middle of the U.S. – an improvisation, a defiant statement if you will, for the memorial Mass at Notre Dame for the victims of the three coordinated suicide bombings of November 13, 2015, which killed 128 persons in Paris.

This is why one studies improvisation, or for that matter any kind of music: to have the tools for when it becomes your duty to make a musical statement where no words suffice.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Bach and Stability of Life

In a conversation with a priest about why Rite One (the traditional Anglican language of prayer) has virtually disappeared, she explained that the theology of the Episcopal Church has moved so far from the Rite One texts that it is no longer appropriate to use them.

Not the language, not the “thees” and “thous” and all the rest: the theology. I believe that she is right as to why Rite One is in disfavor with Episcopal clergy. It is more a matter of the Prayer of Humble Access (BCP p. 337):
We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.
Or the Post-Communion Prayer (BCP p. 339), one of the most magnificent paragraphs in the English language:
Almighty and everlasting God, we most heartily thank thee for that thou dost feed us, in these holy mysteries, with the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ; and dost assure us thereby of thy favor and goodness towards us; and that we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy Son, the blessed company of all faithful people; and are also heirs, through hope, of thy everlasting kingdom. And we humbly beseech thee, O heavenly Father, so to assist us with thy grace, that we may continue in that holy fellowship, and do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost, be all honor and glory, world without end. Amen.
I expect that I shall never hear either of these passages again in public worship. Thoroughly Modern Episcopalians do not believe these things.

But I do.

It is a very different church from the one I entered by means of the laying on of hands in the Sacrament of Confirmation in the 1980’s. Back then, the liturgy, the theology (e.g., Richard Hooker), and especially the language of liturgy were compelling reasons to be Episcopal. No longer. If it were not for the music, I would see no reason to remain.

Following a suggestion from Daniel Coyle’s “Talent Code,” I have a “wall” (in my case, a “door”) bearing photos and paintings of musicians whom I humbly seek to emulate (“we feebly struggle, they in glory shine”): Keith Jarrett. Anton Bruckner. Joseph Haydn (I added him this week, for reasons I may describe someday).

And at the top, J. S. Bach.

A non-musician visited my office recently. He commented “All the musicians revere Bach. I don’t understand it.” I tried to explain, failing miserably; the only way to communicate his importance is by playing or singing his music. I am reminded every time I play his music that I must be serious about my work, and do it more diligently. I must always commit all of it to the Lord Christ who helps us, and to the great glory of God. “S.D.G.” he would write on his scores: Soli Deo Gloria.

Because of his picture on my door, Bach had a surprise for me after my conversation with the priest about Rite One: a lesson in Stability of Life.

By the 1730’s and 40’s, the Lutheran Church was not the one into which he was baptized back there in Eisenach in 1685, just downhill from the Wartburg Castle where Luther had translated the Holy Scriptures. The clergy with whom Bach served in Leipzig were full of Enlightenment ideas, totally foreign to Bach’s solid Lutheran orthodoxy.

And he stayed at his post.

He wrote things like the St. Matthew Passion, when there was no one who either desired or expected such a thing. And motets, and cantatas. And the Third Part of the Clavierübung, framing his musical exposition of the Lutheran Catechism with the E flat prelude and fugue. And the Canonic Variations on Luther’s Christmas hymn “Vom Himmel hoch.”

Forgotten now, because the musical scores remain and the people have come and gone, but he taught several generations of choristers and surely influenced them. Just as surely, he must have been a light in the darkness for those in Leipzig who shared Bach’s dismay at the confusing new ideas, so bereft of spiritual substance. He remains a light in our darkness; how can one play or sing his music without believing? At least for a moment, at least as long as the music lasts.

It would be unimaginable for Old Bach to be anything other than a Lutheran. He is the very essence of Lutheranism.

Would that I were such a saint. From now on, when I look at his picture on my door, I will hear him say something I heard recently as a word of prophecy from another source:

“You still have work to do.”

Jesu, juva.

Friday, October 13, 2017

My Clavichord

Most people who visit my office at the church think that I have a work table to the left of the computer. Few people know that it is a clavichord.

I built it from a kit which was sold by the Burton Harpsichord company, which I think no longer exists. This was in the late 1970’s, when I lived in my grandfather’s old farm house and for the only time in my life had a fine large workshop. I thought that I would be there for the remainder of this mortal life, and that the clavichord would be a fine addition to the old upright piano that was my other instrument. The kit cost around $200 as I recall, which was a huge sum for me in those days.

I have never played the clavichord as much as I would have liked, partly because I did not stay in that house long. When I left a few years later to go to the Choir College, I packed it into a crate and put it in storage, for I was headed for a dormitory room. After that, I worked in the Caribbean, and left the clavichord and my furniture and most of my books in the storage warehouse until I could get properly settled. It was good that I did, for my path soon took me to Tennessee. At that point, many years after going into storage, I set up the instrument in our basement at home.

I played it some, but we lived across the street from my church, so it was generally more productive to go over there and practice on the piano and organ. It had suffered from its years in storage; the frame warped somewhat (which I gather is common for the instrument), causing the soundboard to develop a large crack, decreasing its already small resonance.

Two moves later, it landed in its current location, even worse in condition from its travels. I soon piled it high with things to be done, most notably the five boxes of single-copy anthem octavos left by my predecessor. It has taken me seventeen years to work through them and finally clear the top of the instrument.

I did play it occasionally, an undertaking that required moving the boxes and piles of music from the clavichord lid to the floor. That was enough resistance to make my playing very occasional, indeed. Sometimes years would pass without the lid being opened.

As mentioned, I finally dealt with the thousands of octavos, quite a few of them finding a home in my own octavo file on the shelves. But there was still resistance to playing the instrument. There was a broken string. Many of the notes did not play properly. It was badly out of tune. I put it on my task list, but I could not justify a high priority; it was a “someday/maybe” task, labeled “low priority” to make it even less likely to be done.

Today, out of the blue, I had the right energy to deal with it. I repaired the string. I adjusted the tangents (see below) so that all of the notes played properly. I tuned it – to B flat equals 440, a half-step low, to protect its forty-year old brass strings from breaking. All told, it was the work of about two hours, a task of such small size that I should have done it years ago – as I should have finished dealing with all the music on top of it.

What, you may ask, is a “tangent”?

The clavichord is not the oldest of keyboard instruments – that honor goes to the pipe organ – but it is the simplest. The keys are simple levers. Towards the back of each key, there is a short piece of brass rod, filed to a dull knife-edge at top – this is the tangent. When the key is pressed, the back end rises and the knife-edged top of the tangent contacts the string, which vibrates and makes a soft sound. When the key is released, the sound stops. That is it. No complicated mechanism as there is for the modern piano, or even the harpsichord – and the organ most of all!

Many of the tangents were out of adjustment because of the case warpage – their relationship to the strings above them was not quite the same as it had been when I built it. When the tangent rose to the string, the string would slip off the front or back of the tangent, or in the worst cases, the tangent would miss the string altogether. The fix is simple: remove the key, bend the tangent (holding it with two pairs of pliers so as not to split the wooden key), put it back in, try it and see if it works properly. If not, repeat until it does.

It is not difficult at all, though it does take some patience.

The result: I think it sounds pretty good. Obviously it would sound better were I to disassemble the whole thing, true up the case framework so it is square, replace the soundboard, and restring it with new wire. Perhaps in my retirement; certainly not before.

I could learn much from playing the clavichord. It demands (and, I suspect, teaches) a most gentle and even touch. The slightest movement of a finger produces a sound, and the slightest difference in pressure from one note to the next is noticeable in the sound. It teaches careful listening to the shaping of phrases, to balance between multiple notes in a chord, or contrapuntal lines.

In a way, I have not been ready to attempt the instrument until now; I needed to make a beginning with improvisation first, for the clavichord is a magnificent instrument for the improvisatory art, perhaps the best of all.

We shall see where this leads. I have made a note in my task management system to improvise at the clavichord at least twice a week – perhaps by candlelight on Wednesday and Sunday nights when my other work is done. I think that this might be the best setting for it.

Here is a YouTube demonstration of a Clavichord by Han Ding, a playing of the Aria from the Goldberg Variations on his modern instrument. I chose it over the other YouTube clips that came up in a quick search because it gives a more realistic impression of the volume – that is, very soft.

My instrument is not so handsome as the one in the clip, but is similar in layout. It is most decidedly inferior in every way to the instrument in the next clip, a playing of the same piece on an historic instrument at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is a good example of how a clavichord can look – notice that the inside of the lid is a fine oil painting; this was not uncommon in the old days. But for the recording, the instrument is miked very close and loud; you can get a sense of this from how loud the action noise is, such as when he lifts his hands from the keys at the end. It does not give as good of an impression of what it actually sounds like as the previous clip.

Keith Jarrett did an LP recording of improvisations on the clavichord: “The Book of Ways.” I do not think it is his best work (and like most of the clavichord recordings on the Net, it is mastered far too loud!), but I should continue to listen to it for guidance. Some of the LP tracks are on YouTube; here is one that I like.

This sort of playing is what I would like to do with the clavichord. I doubt that I will ever advance sufficiently to play Bach effectively on it, but improvisation at a sufficient level to please myself might be possible. I think that this work may help my playing of the piano and organ and my general musicianship. It may prove worthwhile for its own sake.