Thursday, July 25, 2013

Music as Speech

Music as Speech; Phrasing and Rhetoric

Music is thought of a language of its own. Ever since people first used a shell or a hollow bone to change or amplify the voice there has been instrumental music.

I'd like to expand on the idea of an instrument as an extension of the voice. Gifted composers and performers try to make instrumental music convey meaning that is just as communicative and effective as that of a song with words.

As instrumentalists, it's important for us to understand at least in a rudimentary way what devices are used to communicate meaning in an instrumental line.

Like a well-composed speech, a musical phrase has a sense of line, pacing, climactic points and points of repose.

Here are two fine examples of public speaking:

Brando's Marc Antony

Marlon Brando gives Marc Antony's Funeral Oration for Julius Caesar (Shakespeare).

This is one of the greatest persuasive speeches ever written. Following Brutus' speech justifying Caesar's assassination as necessary for the good of the Roman Republic, Marc Antony uses the rhetorical device of irony to convince the crowd that Caesar was unjustly killed.

Each time Brando returns to the phrase, "Brutus is an honorable man" the words take on greater irony. By the end of the speech, the crowd is ready to hunt down Brutus, Cassius and the other conspirators.

Whether he actually studied the classics or not, in his interpretation Brando adopts the type of ironic speech inherent in the Shakespeare passage as described by the Roman Quintillian in his text on Rhetoric:.

But in the figurative form of irony the speaker disguises his entire meaning, the disguise being apparent rather than confessed. . . . in the figure the meaning, and sometimes the whole aspect of our case, conflicts with the language and the tone of voice adopted; nay, a man's whole life may be coloured with irony, as was the case with Socrates, who was called an ironist because he assumed the rôle of an ignorant man lost in wonder at the wisdom of others.

I'll develop the theme of the use of rhetorical devices in music and speech in a later post. Meanwhile, here's another inspiring performance of a famous poem.

The Raven

David Van Hoesen found Basil Rathbone's reading of Poe's The Raven inspiring and encouraged me to listen for a sense of musical phrasing in the pacing of the reading and the sense of line in Rathbone's voice.

Lines of poetry are said to "scan". There are accented syllables or words and those that are unaccented. Notes and rhythms in a musical line have the same characteristics. There is a natural ebb and flow to the stressed and unstressed notes in a musical phrase.

Like paragraphs, groups of phrases flow together to form larger groups in the structure of a piece.

Here is a wonderful breakdown of the way Marc Antony's Funeral Oration scans as poetry.  It also contains much information on the rhetorical devices used in the speech.

Try reading some of the speech yourself following the design in the scanned lines.  Notice how the lines become musical when read this way.

Now try the same thing with a musical phrase -- recite it without your instrument as though it were poetry. No need to account for the pitches, just go for the rhythms and stresses in the line.  See how it becomes poetry! Now take up your instrument and play the line with the poetry in mind.


Saturday, July 20, 2013

Improvising a concert

The life of a performing artist is one of highs and lows, routine and surprises. There can be periods in which it feels like you're just repeating something over and over and times when you suddenly need to call on all the special expertise you have to get the job done.

Sometimes it seems like nighttime driving.  Stretches of routine that can be boring are sometimes followed by moments of sheer terror!!

Last Wednesday night could have been one of those moments. While the concert certainly didn't promise to be boring, what ended up happening certainly got everyone's complete attention!

Wednesday was a regularly scheduled faculty concert at the Kent/Blossom Music Festival. On the program were four chamber works that included piano, including the Poulenc Trio (the only piece in which I was involved).

In the middle of the afternoon our pianist, Joela Jones was taken ill and could not play the concert. Danna Sundet, oboist and Festival administrator immediately got on the phone to try and salvage the program.

She called me from the room where I was teaching that day and we consulted.  We both knew another pianist, Elizabeth Demio. Liz is a gifted collaborative pianist with a huge repertoire.  She has played the Poulenc many times before.  In addition, she knows much of the double reed repertoire, being married to Mark Demio, a bassoonist and having played in the Plymouth Trio (with oboist John Mack and soprano Christina Price). 

As it turns out, Liz was free that night and willing to come help out! Danna likened the conversation about repertoire to the TV show, Iron Chef.  We discussed what pieces Liz had under her fingers that included oboe and bassoon and made a program. Here are the ingredients in the refrigerator, now make a great dish!

Danna would do the Poulenc Sonata and I would play the
Saint-Saëns Sonate with Liz.  I hadn't touched the piece since the fall, but have played it many times, as has Liz.

In addition, Ying Fu, the new Associate Concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra (and current member of our violin section) was supposed to play as part of the Elgar Quintet. With that now cancelled, he agreed to play the Beethoven 1st Sonata with Liz. The new program would now be:

Poulenc Oboe Sonata
Saint-Saëns Sonate for Bassoon
Beethoven Sonata #1 for Piano and Violin
Poulenc Trio

So we had a  program!

I think Liz arrived at Ludwig Recital Hall on the KSU campus roughly 2 hours before the 7:30 concert.  I taught until 6:00 and went out for a quick coffee to give me a burst of energy and focus my tired brain cells.  I had been teaching since 9:30 that morning!

Liz and I had about 10 minutes to touch the Saint-Saëns before the performance.  I think the others had about the same amount of time.  The Poulenc Trio got no rehearsal at all!

Perhaps one of the few advantages of being an old guy is that you've had this sort of thing happen before. There's nothing you can do about it, so you just leave your fate up to the gods (reed gods, God, whomever!) and try to enjoy yourself and really give a performance!

Old guys (seasoned veterans, if you prefer!) also have an advantage over young whippersnappers in that they have performed core repertoire like the Saint-Saëns many times.  I have played it numerous times and teach it and demonstrate it in lessons with regularity. So, while it was certainly a stretch to play it on Wednesday night, it wasn't out of the question for me.

The performance went well. It seemed like Liz, Danna and Ying all enjoyed themselves in spite of the pressure. The audience, who had been informed of the program change and last minute arrangements was enthusiastic and sympathetic.

The Collaborative Pianist

Great collaborative pianists are worth their weight in gold! These people have a generous spirit, a thick skin and a joy in making music with others. 

Some pianists are solitary figures who focus on solo careers.  Playing concerti with orchestras is their only interaction with others.

Collaborative pianists love making music with others and often feel a bit lonely playing by themselves. They put up with bad pianos and are expert at making instrumentalists sound their best. They know what to leave out in piano reductions of orchestral scores, are attentive to balance issues, can transpose a part to fit a singer's range and are generally good at coaching.

The discipline and aptitude required in these areas tends to weed out those less able pretty quickly. That leaves people with special skills and personality.

Collaborative Pianists I Have Known

We are blessed with several great collaborative pianists in our area. Liz, who saved our concert is one of the best.

Joela Jones (who recovered quickly, by the way) plays piano, organ, celeste, harpsichord, even accordion. She also accompanies our Cleveland Orchestra Chorus.

Randy Fusco, music professor at Hiram College, has recorded two CDs with me. With his encyclopedic knowledge of repertoire, he can make the piano sound like an orchestra.

Jim Howsmon, music professor at Oberlin College, can read an orchestral score at sight on the piano. He has adapted many bassoon accompaniments to make them sound better than what's printed.

Randy, Jim and another pianist, Jeffrey Gilliam were college classmates of mine.  I learned a great deal from them by performing with them, hearing them play, listening to their favorite recordings, comparing lesson notes, and talking about music.

I'm sure I've left a few out!

If you know someone like this, seek them out, befriend them, buy them dinner, you never know when you'll need to ask for a favor (like this Wednesday)!

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Continuing Education - Recommendations

Staying Current 

The past few weeks have been really nice around here.  I've had some time off and had the pleasure of seeing and hearing some former students at the house.  It's really nice to see them again and hear how they're doing.  One of the frustrating parts of being a teacher is that day when they graduate and leave for other parts, so it's fun to have a visit from time to time.

It's also fun to see what areas of their playing have improved since I last heard them.

Perhaps the best skill a teacher can impart to a student is to help the student learn how to teach himself. Give a man a fish/teach a man to fish. . . .

However, this skill is not magically bestowed upon graduation.  It is a life-long pursuit. No one can develop this skill on her own. Those who continue to grow as musicians seek out help from former teachers or other mentors for occasional feedback after the end of formal study.

This may come in the form of periodic get-togethers with a former teacher, playing for colleagues, listening to recordings of yourself and others or even just attending concerts on free nights.

Recording "Teachers"

Upon graduation from college I used my time as a record store clerk to listen to recordings in the store to learn new repertoire and study interpretations by different artists. I found I learned the most from listening to singers and pianists.

Perhaps because I have a passing knowledge of German, I learned the most from German artists like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Fritz Wunderlich and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf. The art of the German Lied with its marriage of music and poetry and its intimate setting gave me valuable insights in interpretation, how to sing a line, how to color notes, etc. It also taught me to protect the "p" dynamic so my playing would have the requisite contrast and scope.

Pianists I listened to were Horowitz, Brendel and Pollini for various reasons.

Horowitz (who was still alive during this period) was a living link to the great pianists of the past like Rachmaninov, Busoni, Liszt, etc. His piano was voiced like no other and thus, yielded a sound that no other could elicit. His performances had an element of wizardry to them. I remember a performance of Liszt's "Mephisto Waltz" after which the piano literally shook for a few seconds.  Did I see smoke coming from under the lid? He revoiced chords and occasionally altered the music in such a way that some of his repertoire was as much "Horowitz" as it was Liszt or some other composer.

Brendel provided a link to the core Germanic repertoire (Beethoven, Schubert, etc.) and older performers such as Edwin Fischer and Arthur Schnabel. His playing was (he just recently retired) profound, yet full of good humor. His touch was the most expressive I've ever encountered.  I still remember his performance of the Beethoven 4th Piano Concerto with us a few years ago!

Pollini's playing is inspiring for its technical brilliance and faithfulness to the score. His passion for contemporary music balances his expertise with the core repertoire.  His recording of the version for piano of Stravinsky's Petroushka is legendary!

(Blog post time out -- if some of these names are unfamiliar to you, I highly recommend you seek out their performances.  If you are a classical musician, these are your forefathers!)

The Check-Up

Every couple of years I made a point of going to Rochester, NY to play for my former teacher, K. David Van Hoesen. Sometimes the things a teacher says take years for the student to absorb. The lessons on those visits helped cement in my mind things he brought up during my formal study with him.

Generally I'd bring an audition repertoire list to play or something I was recording for his reaction. He always seemed pleased to see me and would spend the necessary time with me to attack any problems I was having with the music.

I left with a more accurate assessment of what things in my playing needed greater attention.


I made those visits not only for help with my playing, however. I wanted Van Hoesen to have an updated impression of my playing every few years so he could write the most effective recommendation letter or speak most effectively about my playing when called upon to do so.

Teachers with long careers like his have so many students over time that it's sometimes hard for them to recall specific aspects of a particular student's playing 10 years or so past graduation. If you are a young professional reading this, would you want your teacher to write about how you played upon graduation or how you play now?

When I joined the Cleveland Orchestra there was a period of about a year when lots of former students were suddenly asking me for letters of recommendation.  Some were students who had stayed in good contact with me and who had recently played for me.

However, there were a few I heard from who hadn't been in touch for 10 years or more.  I refused to write letters for them because I felt I couldn't accurately describe their skills today.

John Whitwell, former Director of Bands at Michigan State University used to say to his students, "You write a new paragraph in your recommendation letter each day." That's good advice for musicians, for this world is very small and most people know each other through a myriad of connections.

Each year at CIM we read the recommendations written on behalf of applicants.  I've come to know which teachers write meaningful recommendations and which ones don't.

Some teachers always write glowing recommendations -- and then you hear the student play. . .

Others write carefully composed letters that still present the student in a favorable light but don't boast or exaggerate. It is always interesting to note what's NOT mentioned in the letter!

When asking someone to write a letter for you, it's best to waive your right to see the letter.
That way the writer is free to compose a letter that's honest and candid. If you must handle the letter, make sure the writer has sealed it and signed over the flap of the back of the envelope before you get it.

Be courteous and provide your writer with an addressed, stamped envelope if the letter cannot be submitted online.