Thursday, December 8, 2016

Get to the Point…with “The Viennese Sigh”

This blog was first published by Oxford University Press:

Whether speaking in simple conversation, acting dramatically on stage, singing in the shower, or performing on a musical instrument in a recital hall, the common goal is to “get to the point” in some way or another.  In Classical Era music, a tool that facilitates getting to the point is the use of small gestures that are designated with a slur. 

The small slur — a stepwise appoggiatura figure — is the cornerstone to expressing the musical point. This type of slur is a sign of clarity, not a phrase mark. A two- to four-note group under a slur simply indicates “we belong together.” The slur gives intentional direction — gestures; much like a painter’s small brush strokes.  It provides guidance for rhythmic groupings and dynamic direction. It allows the performer to articulate or set aside important or new ideas. The slur indication enlivens and gives energy to the music by lightly end­ing one gesture and clearly articulating the next. The point is to make the music more interesting! In combination, small slurred gestures create phrases that are built, one upon another, to clearly define the larger structure.  This type of expression originated in Vienna in the eighteenth century and became so popular that it was trademarked “The Viennese Sigh.”

With this expressive tool at our disposal the possibilities are boundless. It is discussed specifically and extensively by Leopold Mozart in his pedagogical writings. In his Violinschule, he provides an example of three measures in triple time with thirty-three different possibili­ties for accentuation. He then proclaims: “Now this changes indisputably the whole style of performance.”[i]

This fundamental eighteenth-century indicator is a quite simple and nat­ural concept based on Classical Era stringed instruments that used a convex bow which naturally creates a diminuendo. The first note under a slur is accentuated more strongly because of the natural tendency of the bow with a slackening of volume on the remaining notes. This practice is also a natural vocal tendency. Take a moment to verbalize any number of two-syllable words that contain a first-syllable accent to easily understand the concept. Likewise, due to the rapid decay on the fortepi­ano (the eighteenth-century piano), the first note under a slur is accentuated while the remaining notes under the slur create a diminuendo.

Properly executing these markings is what makes the message comprehensible. Notes under the slur should be played on the piano in a single impulse without making any movement of the hand. Beethoven teaches, “This will be achieved if it [the hand] is always placed firmly on the first of the two slurred notes and is lifted almost ver­tically as the second note is touched.”[ii]  Notice that it is the hand, led by the wrist, that initiates the release. Following this advice will prevent hopping off the key to avoid a choking, unmusical staccato, or pushing off the key to avoid that terrible clunker — the undesired accent.

The slur indicates attack and release. The first note of a slur and the first note after a slur (which may well be a new slur grouping) is articulated or set-off through a clean attack (with varying degrees of emphasis), a clean release (with varying degrees of lightness), and a separation of sound (with varying degrees of time) between the two gestures. The extent of articulation depends on influencing traits derived from affekt (expression).

Eighteenth-century style is closed related to expository speaking. (The Classical sonata with its exposition, development, and recapitulation blossomed during this time). Articulate, “clean-speaking” execution is of utmost importance and is done so with clean articulation of the downbeat. Therefore, eighteenth-century slurs almost never continue over the bar line.

Not only does following slur markings create an articulate sound it also creates an extremely intimate, complex, and beautiful affekt that can be realized beautifully on the fortepiano.  Follow the link to hear an example from Beethoven, Six Minuets, WoO 10, No. 2, Trio on fortepiano. Copyright 1990 by G. Henle Verlag, Munich.

And with careful attention to subtleties in the wrist it can be pleasingly achieved on the modern piano:

There are some understood rules regarding eighteenth-century notational practices of the slur. It is customary to indicate only the first few sets of accentua­tion in prolonged successions of detached or legato notes. Succeeding tones follow suit until another kind of mark inter­venes.

In the Beethoven example, articulation begins with two-note slurs in ms. 47.  It is understood that this grouping will continue through mm. 48–49 until the articulation is changed in ms. 50.  Incidentally, it is common practice for the accompanying part to follow suit with the designated articulation.  Therefore, in this example, the left hand may play two-note slurs along with the right hand.

Beethoven, Bagatelle in G Minor, Op. 119, No. 1, mm. 47-52. Copyright (1978) G. Henle Verlag, Munich.

This practice is clearly and cleanly heard on fortepiano:

 and, again, can be achieved with aesthetically pleasing results on the modern piano:

For all pianists, regardless of the instrument, to “get to the point” utilize a simple practice: Each slur is a gesture from more to less with the wrist initiating the lift.

[i] L. Mozart, A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing, 123-24.
[ii] Johann Baptist Cramer, 21 Etüden für Klavier: Nach dem Handexemplar Beethovens aud dem Besitz, as translated by Rosenblum, Performance Practices in Classic Piano Music, 200.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Let the Magic Happen

The Fall Season is a magical time of year in the Midwest.  Trees and bushes that were flush with deep green leaves begin to change color ever so slightly as the nights lengthen.  And then suddenly, after one deep frost, the magic bursts on the scene – golden yellows, blood reds, dark magentas, vibrant oranges.  With a light jacket, one can traverse the neighborhood to breathe in the crisp fall air, lean toward the autumn sun, and delight in the visual magic.

This magic is a gift from the universe.  It is nothing that can be managed, controlled, or manipulated.  Yes, one can plant wisely (and even take a chance on that favorite plant that might not be perfect for our climate), prune carefully, and fertilize and water faithfully. But the magic is largely out of our control.

Likewise, for musicians, we give the gift of magic for the universe in our performances.  We plant wisely in choosing our repertoire: Do I best highlight my gifts? What is the best opener? Where do I sneak in that piece I want to share despite the challenges? Is the show-stopper timed to grab the listener? We prune carefully: Is the program an appropriate length for my ability; for my audience’s attention span?

We fertilize and water faithfully in our practice habits.  Have I decided the mood and emotion behind the piece before I take it to the piano? Do I know the structure?  Where are the high points?  Where is the surprise? Where will I need extra stamina? When I take practice to the piano do I employ careful note-reading from the outset at a slow enough tempo and in small enough segments to develop accurate and reliable muscle memory?  Do I play, rich with expression - dynamics, articulation, and phrasing – all the colors?

Once all is said and done, the bigger, more over-riding question must be asked:  Am I allowing the magic to unfold?  I think for musicians that means, “am I releasing control over every note, dynamic marking, and articulation direction to simply let my heart and soul make connection with another?”  This is the scariest leap of faith we can make.  And the most rewarding. When it happens, the colors take on a rich hue, the sun shines deeply in our hearts, and we experience a magical link between ourselves, the audience, the composer, and the universe.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Eighteenth-Century Rhythm Riddle: What is the Quarter Note Quandary?

This blog was first published by Oxford University Press:

If you were to ask a modern musician what the quarter note means in Common Time the answer would be simple: “It lasts for one full beat, to be released at the beginning of the succeeding beat.” Ah, but eighteenth-century rhythm reading is not a simple “one-size-fits-all” affair. Just as spoken language has evolved over time, so has music notational language.  The notation has remained much the same; it is how the notation is read that has changed.  So, how is the quarter note quandary solved?  Gazing at the issue through an eighteenth-century lens will answer the riddle.

Eighteenth-century style is one of clarity – expressive rhythmic clarity – that projects character or affekt through the notation at hand.  And the crisp, articulate fortepiano is the perfectly suited instrument for executing the style. All rhythmic elements are chosen to reflect affekt; so much so that when certain elements are present a particular affekt is understood. The Rhythm Schemata diagram provides insight to the interacting elements:

Rhythm Schemata

Notice that affekt is at the center of the wheel.  All notational decisions – appropriate tempo and meter, carefully crafted formal and phrase structure to allow for execution of rhetoric, and specific rhythm choices – are made to express the desired affekt.

Execution of the quarter note varies greatly depending on tempo and meter choices, which are directly related to period dances. For example, a march in duple meter commands a different affekt than a minuet in triple meter. Just like there are heavy and light meters, note values act in much the same way.  A time signature with a 2 in the bottom denotes heavy affekt, one with a 4 lighter, and one with an 8 in the bottom lighter yet.  Note value choices within the meter provide execution clues.  For instance, a piece made up primarily of half and quarter notes would be heavier than one of eighth and sixteenth notes.  A comparison of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata, op. 10, no. 3 to his Piano Sonata op. 14, no. 2 demonstrates how note values take on differing character based on these period practices. So, the quarter note may take on a variety of characters, and consequently lengths, based on affekt.

Today, legato is the ordinary way of playing.  If a line is presented with no markings (staccato or legato), the performer assumes to play legato, holding every rhythm for the full value. Not so in eighteenth-century style.  This is where the answer to the riddle lies: The quarter note is held for its full value only when it occurs under a slur or a tenuto marking. How long should it be held?  Just when is it appropriate to release the quarter note?  This is where affekt is essential (and why it is at the center of the wheel). Depending on affekt, a quarter note may be cut quite short (like a crisp timpani attack) or held for most of the beat (as in a forlorn oboe solo). One must turn to the nuances of notation –  formal structure, meter, expression marks, dynamics, and beaming – for clues. 

Taking specific steps will facilitate creating a rhythmically authentic and personal eighteenth-century style on the modern piano. 

  • Begin with Urtext editions. It is essential to work from an authentic score to determine how best to follow the clues left by the composer rather than an interpretation offered by an editor.
  • During initial experiences work with a piece that contains simple textures and is quite bare (few slurs or dynamic markings). Simple dances from Mozart’s Klavierstücke, Beethoven’s German Dances, or Piano Sonata in C Major, K. 545 by Mozart are good starting places.
  • Do some digging: What dance is being described? Is the meter heavy or light?  In context, are the note values heavy or light? Unearthing answers will impact the length of the quarter notes.
  • Hold the quarter notes for full value only when under a slur or tenuto.
  • Strive for a strong metrical pulse. The down-beat is extremely important in this style.
  • Allow the energy and expression (determined by the affekt) to influence carefully placed timing and rubato within metrical boundaries.
  • Sing each line; this will go a long way in deciding tasteful rhythmic length and timing.  
  • The fortepiano’s strength is crispness and clarity of tone, the modern piano’s is to produce a long, legato line. Listen carefully and continually.  Adjust to the feedback from the instrument to prevent a choppy tone and choked endings of phrases. 

Hear the improvement in the sound aesthetic as you move through the following audio examples: 1) a frequently-heard modern rendition, 2) an interpretation on a Belt-Walter replica ca. 1780’s five-octave fortepiano, and 3) a reconciled and historically informed rendition on a modern piano. The energy and vibrancy provided by using period rhythm-reading strategies is markedly noticeable.

Taking the time to view the score through an eighteenth-century lens and apply the period performance practices judiciously to modern playing provides the opportunity to discover an old language that may be recreated in a new way.  

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Music on the Trail:  New Beginnings!

It is that time of year!  Whether it is your first day of school or you are remembering your first day many years ago, there is something about the excitement and promise of new beginnings!  New school supplies, new books, a new backpack, new shoes, new clothes…new, new, new!  And, the butterflies!  Who will be my new teacher?  What will he or she be like?  Who will be in my classes?  During my college days, I remember looking at my new textbooks before the first day of classes and wondering how in the world I was ever going to learn all of that stuff – and in 15 short weeks!

Having had the opportunity to bring Music on the Trail to a wide variety of audiences over the years, I am reminded of the hundreds of thousands (estimates range anywhere from 400,000 to 650,000) of overlanders (they did not call themselves pioneers) who felt an excitement all their own as they prepared for a new beginning: an excursion across the Oregon Trail to a new life in the West.  From the US Army Expedition with 4,000 soldiers that covered the route in 1842, to the last Prairie Schooner that landed in Oregon as late as 1912, it was an exciting time.  Appropriate preparation was the difference between making it to Oregon or turning back; sometimes between life or death.

After a few wagon trains had successfully made the trek, booklets were available for 35¢ to aide preparations and guide one on the trail. One such book guided journeys that used Omaha for the jumping-off point. It covered everything about the route down to the minutest detail, including the accurate location of all landmarks, river crossings, desirable camping places, and posts. The farther out they got, the more the overlanders found it to their advantage to follow the little booklet’s directions quite literally.

Equally important to the trail directions were complete directions for provisions necessary for a months-long, 2,000-mile journey and supplies for a new growing season after arriving in Oregon. What were some of the provisions necessary for the trip?  Here is a sampling:

Food for a Family of Four

  • 600 lbs. of flour
  • 100 lbs. of sugar
  • 200 lbs. of lard
  • Eggs packed in corn meal to prevent breakage
  • 120 lbs. of biscuits
  • 400 lbs. of bacon, often hauled in large barrels packed in bran to avoid melting the fat
  • 60 lbs. of coffee
  • 4 lbs. of tea
  • Baking soda
  • Corn meal
  • Hardtack
  • Dried beef
  • Molasses
  • Vinegar
  • Salt and pepper
  • Sacks of rice and beans
  • Dried fruit and pumpkin         

Everything needed had to be anticipated and packed:

  • 1 -2 sturdy farm wagons
  • 6 - 10 head of oxen
  • 1 - 2 milk cows
  • Food
  • Clothing
  • Wool sack and rubber coats
  • Cotton dresses, shirts, socks
  • Flannel shirts
  • Wool pantaloons
  • Buckskin pants, duck trousers
  • Boots and brogans
  • Felt hat, palm-leaf sun hat, green goggles, sunbonnet
  • Bedding - blankets, ground cloths, pillows, tent, poles, stakes, ropes
  • Utensils needed for survival: dutch oven, kettle, skillet, reflector oven, coffee grinder, teapot, butcher knife, ladle, tin tableware and cups, water keg, matches
  • Weaponry
  • Tools: augers, gimlet, ax, hammer, shovel, spade, whetstone, oxbows, axles, kingbolts, ox shoes, spokes, wagon tongue, heavy ropes, chains, good hunting knife
  • Farm implements for use upon arrival in Oregon: shovel, scythe, rake, hoe, saw, broad axe, mallet, plane, seeds for crops
  • Handy extras: surgical instruments, liniments, bandages, campstool, chamber pot, washbowl, lanterns, candle molds, tallow, spyglasses, scissors, needles, pins, thread, brandy for "medicinal purposes"

And what did they take to pass the time, to make the journey go by more pleasantly?  A special small toy, a favorite book, paper and pencil to write back home, and a prized item to lift the spirits – music!  Although there are stories of attempts to take a piano, most likely portable instruments such as these would fit the bill: fiddle, violin, tambourine, flute, jaw harp, accordion, guitar, dulcimer.  Folk song favorites included Skip to My Lou, Cindy, Froggie Went a-Courtin’, Shenandoah, My Country ‘tis of Thee, Sweet Betsy from Pike, America, the list goes on and on!

As you feel the rush of excitement for this new season, whether it be for a new school year, the opportunity to start lessons on a musical instrument, the turning from Summer to Fall, or the beginning of football season, take a moment to revel in joyful anticipation and maybe send up a little “thank you” to those daring overlanders who showed us that anything is possible – with preparation and perseverance, determination and perspiration, and a “can-do” attitude!

Friday, July 1, 2016

Summertime...while the living is easy...

In May I issued a challenge to take time this summer to simply “be,” whether at an outdoor concert, on a bike, in a hammock, or with a book. Just be. I took myself up on the challenge (as hard as that is for me!) and gave myself the gift of time and space. As I emptied myself of busy-ness I found space for a deepening of my soul to emerge and be heard. As I reflect on these experiences I hope you will find moments to pause and consider for yourself as well.

As is true with many things in life, the musical journey is full of paradoxes. How do I reconcile the spiritual self with the physical self? What is the affekt I wish to convey in my playing yet how does my technique allow/hamper me to do so? How is what I feel expressed through the mechanics of the instrument and form of the composition at hand? How do I incorporate quietude and space into a hunger for new repertoire and musical experiences?

For me, the right side of each question is the easy, or at least tangible part of the paradox. I can experiment with how to make the desired sound on the piano and study the score to understand the form.  I can do exercises to improve or address technical issues. I can dig into new repertoire and engage in new performances (as performer or listener). I can physically be at the piano.

As I recently found myself drowning in the obsessive sea of doing, a gentle nudge from a dear mentor suggested that perhaps it was time to revisit the bliss of being; to reacquaint myself with my soul, my passion, my purpose. So, I turned off the outside and gently, slowly, prayerfully, revisited the opening chapters of Jill Timmons’ book, The Musician’s Journey (Oxford University Press, 2013). On pages 49 and 52 Timmons gently challenges me to consider “how would I live out my vision if I didn’t have to make a living?” And, I was given permission to ask hard questions such as “what am I afraid of?” or “am I willing to be vulnerable to achieve my goals?”

From within The Musician’s Journey, I was called to read The Musician’s Soul by James Jordon (GIA Publications, Inc., 1999). Even deeper into my soul I ventured. I was reminded that before I can do anything, I must be in touch with who I am. Through Jordon’s generous narrative I was reminded of the gift of self-awareness and the basal vulnerability that must be present in order to truly share one’s music with another; that creativity and my soul lies deep within me and will give me no peace until I get out of its way and let it be expressed. Through this stillness within, the answers and peace emerge.

Rather than bearing down, doing in order to have (what? more? more gigs? more money? more accolades?), I am reminded that I am free to be and use the doing to be more in touch with who I am. And that the having flows naturally in a way I could never contrive or force on my own. This is scary territory indeed—this being, listening, trusting. While at the neighborhood swimming pool during one of my “summertime” sessions, I watched as one child completely trusted the water to hold her while another wasn’t yet ready, holding on tightly to his parent; another belly-flopping rather than trusting and tucking her chin for a dive while another took a deep bounce and floated into the deep end. I laid back and floated, watched the clouds swim by, and reflected on how I have been all of those children many times over throughout my life.

I am grateful to have taken this time to visit within once again. As we head into July, I feel a renewed peace and centeredness that brings deep joy and trust in a universe that will provide what I need if I am open, vulnerable, and willing. Yet, I know my personal Musician’s Journey and my continuing acquaintance and friendship with my Musician’s Soul is not a one stop shop. This peace and centeredness will ebb and flow as life moves forward. I will continue to develop those concrete tools so that I am further equipped to hear that perfect sound inside, know my center, and trust my internal compass to recreate its joy for others to experience. Isn’t that the purpose?  I know it is mine.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Conjuring 18th-Century Affekt with Alberti Bass on the Modern Piano

This post was first published by Oxford University Press:

Affekt (the ability of music to stir emotions) is the foundational pillar for eighteenth century style. It was achieved through attention to detail and proper execution. And done in good taste, which implies a deep understanding of proper practices of the time. Nearly every notational and performance decision was based on affekt—everything from formal structure to note values, dynamics to articulation, and accompaniment patterns such as Alberti bass.

Expressing affekt begins with clearly understanding and conveying the structural or formal foundation and harmonic function. It is upon this that all other elements are laid. Just like the beauty of the Washington National Cathedral is built on solid footings, pilings, and framework, eighteenth-century music finds itself grounded on thoroughbass. C. P. E. Bach devotes a full twenty-five percent of his Versuch to this fundamental component. But, it’s not just the harmony, it’s how the harmonic structure drives expression. And with this knowledge interpretive and expressive answers are laid at our feet. Consequently, how to execute expressive embellishing components such as Alberti bass are then more easily determined to bring richness and clarity to our playing.

The Harvard Dictionary of Music points out that broken-chord patterns date back to the seventeenth century,[1] of which Alberti bass is the most commonly known. It is “an accompaniment figure, found frequently in the left hand of the 18th-century keyboard (sic), in which the pitches of three-pitch chords are playing successively in the order lowest, highest, middle, highest, as in … Mozart (Sonata in C major K. 545).”[2] The figure is named after Italian singer, harpsichordist, and composer Domenico Alberti (1710-1740?), who used this figuration extensively.[3] Today, Alberti bass has taken a more generic definition, referring to various configurations of arpeggiated broken harmonies.

Once it appeared on the scene, the Alberti bass took hold. It was very popular around 1800 and went out of fashion quickly as new pianos appeared that contained a more resonant soundboard that resulted in a naturally louder, longer-lasting tone. The perfect genre for Alberti bass configurations was the sonata; the perfect instrument to execute them on was the fortepiano. It is extremely conducive to the mechanics of the fortepiano (with a bright, clear attack), lending energy to the declamatory nature of the instrument and rhetorical style of the time. What is often described as simply an accompaniment pattern today is much more important in creating affekt in eighteenth-century style. The Alberti bass motives create rhyth­mic and harmonic energy, drive, and momentum—pulse and forward propulsion—whether dramatic or lyrical. When it appears momentum intensifies. A clever quip Malcolm Bilson provided says it all: “When it shows, it goes!”[4]

The Alberti bass shapes vary according to need and levels of intensity. As the intensity of the affekt relaxes, so does the activity of the figuration.
  • The most intense figura­tion that provides optimal rhythmic energy, drive, and opportunity for poly­phonic implications outlines a 5-1-3-1-5-1-3-1 pattern, seen in Mozart, Piano Sonata, K. 309/I, mm 73-74. (Copyright G. Henle Verlag, Munich, 2005)

  • In mm. 15–16 of the Presto from London Notebook, Anh. 109b no. 3 (15p), mm. 15-25 (Copyright G. Henle Verlag, 2005), by Mozart, the affekt is less intense than that of K. 309. The texture is thinner and the implied polyphony has been reduced to two voices. Yet the intervals and 1-5-1-5-1-5 figuration keeps things quite “live.”
  • Drive is lessened further at mm. 22–24, when the figure shifts to a rolling and relaxed 1-3-5-3-1-3-5-3 in the right hand. Here, the suspense comes from the melodic motive in the left hand.
  • The affekt is the least dramatic and almost lyrical in mm. 18–21, where the left-hand pattern outlines a simple progression with arpeggiated four-note chords.

The change in sound aesthetic from one figuration to another is quite dramatic.

There are some concepts that apply regardless of the instrument on which Alberti bass is executed: Heed notational clues to understand formal structure from the very beginning rings true for any repertoire at any level from any era; and let the figuration drive expression and momentum.

The trick lies in conjuring up this sound aesthetic on an instrument for which the figuration was not intended, the modern piano. So what does one do “when it shows?” Many modern players attempt to repress, subdue, or minimize Alberti bass. To do so is much like trying to ignore that pesky gnat at a picnic. It is simply annoying. More importantly, it fails to serve the purpose for which it was intended.

It is most effective to highlight the affekt, found in its rhythmic drive, secondary melodies, or dramatic or beautiful quali­ties. This effort will bring energy and focus to the motive, as was historically intended and can be reconciled on the modern piano to an effective end:

There are simple technical principles that can be applied to facilitate execution:

  • When constructing Alberti bass figurations, begin by creating a pulse. Practice in pulses of one pulse per measure, two pulses per measure, and eventually, one pulse with each beat. The affekt of the section will determine the appro­priate number of pulses.[5] As intensity increases, tempo stretches. Pulsing the Alberti bass provides many ben­efits. The rhythmic pulse will be defined and enlivened. The intermediary notes will naturally be softer. Rushing, that ever-present nemesis, will be kept at bay!

  • When shaping the Alberti bass, begin with the bass notes (in pulses) alone in conjunction with the melody. This clarifies voice leading. Next, “divide” the hand in half. The bass note is a downward rotation, and the remaining notes are the upward rotation, creating a stroke for each unit.

  • Envision “orchestrating” Alberti bass figurations and harmonic contours to add depth and substance to the voices. This practice also brings the figure into focus and provides clarity.

  • Identify and bring out polyphonic contours to add interest and relevance to the figure.
Formal structure and harmonic function provide the solid groundwork and long-lasting beauty on which eighteenth-century affekt is built. Alberti bass is one of the tools available to enhance and ornament the founda­tion. Taking great care in shaping and highlighting the various figurations provides the necessary means to conjure up eighteenth-century affekt—even on the modern piano!

[1] Willi Apel, ed., The Harvard Dictionary of Music, 2nd rev. and enlarged ed. (Harvard University Press, 1969), 26.
[2] Don Michael Randel, ed. The Harvard Dictionary of Music, 4th ed. (Harvard University Press, 2003), 31.
[3] Willi Apel, ed., The Harvard Dictionary of Music, 2nd rev. and enlarged ed. (Harvard University Press, 1969), 26.
[4] Malcolm Bilson, Early Music Days, lectures and master classes, Fertöd, Hungary, June 22-29, 2013.
[5] Bart van Oort, Fortepiano at Villa Bossi (lectures and master classes, Associazione Musicale, Villa Bossi, Italy, June 23-27, 2010).

Tuesday, May 3, 2016


...and the livin’ is easy." No one says it better than George Gershwin. It is my sincere hope for you that your summer brings an abundance of "easy livin’" that allows for fishing, swimming, hiding and seeking, firefly chasing, star gazing, hammock swinging, great book reading, and easy music making that includes some outdoor listening.

Simple living and simple music has influenced the classical genre throughout the ages. The many dances that made their way into the formal ballrooms and concert halls are grounded in period folk music. One can almost hear the boots thumping in a gigue and the flowing skirts swishing in a minuet. Beethoven delighted in his walks in the Vienna Woods: listen for the birds chirping, the thunderstorm booming, and the river flowing in his Sixth Symphony, dubbed the “Pastoral Symphony.” Brahms was greatly influenced by the folk music introduced to him by his Hungarian violinist friend, Joseph Joachim, and today we enjoy the resulting gift of Brahms' Hungarian Dances! Chopin’s Mazurkas bring the Polish melodies of his childhood to our living rooms. Saturday Night Waltz from Copland’s ballet score to Rodeo uses American folk song I Ride an Old Paint as its inspiration. A fun summer project may be to explore the biography of your favorite composers to learn of simple factors that influenced their style.

Most communities have embraced summer music events wholeheartedly.  In my community there is a free event almost every evening somewhere throughout the city from Memorial Day to Labor Day and beyond.  There are also many family-friendly events with very affordable ticket prices. If you are a parent looking for ways to enrich your child’s music foundation, there is no better way than to expose him or her to a variety of musical styles.  Imagine attending a Monday Mall outdoor cover band concert, Tuesday Jazz in June, Wild Wednesday at the Zoo with folk singers, Thursdays at the park featuring various local artists, Friday Shakespeare in the Park, the local community band on Independence Day…you get the idea. 

Attending outdoor concerts in a relaxed setting allows children the freedom to take in the sounds through osmosis, allowing the sound and style to filter in through play, the way children learn best. An added bonus is that most of these events are free. When little ones reach the saturation point, pick up the blanket and head home for baths and bedtime!

When the season grows to the oppressive heat of summer, turn off the electronics and sing “The Ants Go Marching One by One” or “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt” as you walk or bike to the pool for a refreshing, cool dip!  Explore American folk songs and the silly lyrics. Learn how the lyrics that seem silly today had relevant meaning at the time. Then, encourage your young pianist to create his or her own folk songs. Rather than expect specific practice at the piano, require “butt on the bench time.” No assignment to prepare, just simple music-making. (I have vivid memories of returning from the pool and sitting down at the piano while wearing my still-wet swimsuit that prompted parental checks to make sure there was a towel under me to protect the bench!) In this easy way, the blossoming pianist is given the gift of using the talents developed thus far to create his or her own music or enjoy fun tunes that there are rarely time for during festival and recital season.

"Summertime…and the livin’ is easy." Livin’ and learnin’ in an easy way. 

Friday, April 1, 2016

"Affekt"—the Foundational Pillar in Eighteenth Century Music

This post was first published by Oxford University Press:

How does one capture the Classical style sound aesthetic when approaching performance of eighteenth century repertoire on the modern piano?  Although it is important to know of the period instruments and their associated physical sound qualities, knowing how period musicians approached their art emotionally and intellectually will provide even deeper insight into discovering how to recreate the sound aesthetic.  And in doing so, we turn to affekt, probably the single most influencing factor upon which the eighteenth century musical experience is built.  Every esteemed treatise from the eighteenth century impresses upon the reader the immense importance of understanding the influence of affekt on playing.  Whether it was Leopold Mozart in his Violinschule, Türk in his Klavierschule, Kirnberger in his The Art of Strict Musical Composition, or Quantz in his On Playing the Flute, affekt is at the crux of this music-making matter.

Affekt is the foundational pillar for eighteenth century style. It is the ability of music to stir emotions and was described in a variety of ways, including character, affections, expression, affect, and emotion. It was achieved through attention to detail and proper execution. And done in good taste, which implies a deep understanding of proper practices of the time.

All manner of composition and performing, from formal structure down to phrasing and execution of individual notes had the understanding of affekt at its foundation. Nearly every notational and performance decision was based on affekt – everything from formal structure to note values, dynamics to articulation, as Türk instructs.

Whoever performs a composition so that its inherent affect (character) is expressed (made perceptible) to the utmost even in every single passage, and that the tones become, so to speak, a language of feelings, of him one says that he has a good execution. Good execution, therefore, is the most important, yet at the same time the most difficult aspect of music making.

      ---Daniel Gottlob Türk, Klavierschule (1789). Translated by Raymond H. Haggh. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press (1982), 321.

Looking to specifics in eighteenth-century practice, meter decisions have a strong influence on affekt. Baroque dances and their varying affekt are expressed through the intentional use of specific meters. The time signature alone also describes the weight of a piece:  a two in the denominator indicates a heavier weight or execution, a four in the denominator calls for a lighter weight and an eight in the denominator indicates an execution that is lighter yet. A textbook example of this concept is found in Sonatina in C Major, Op. 36, no. 1 by Muzio Clementi.

Likewise, specific note values project affekt. A passage primarily containing half notes is associated with a heavier sound and affekt, a quarter note passage is lighter, and a passage full of eighth notes is lighter yet. This is also evidenced in the Clementi Sonatina.

The chosen key center of each composition is particularly married to an associated affekt. Furthermore, the tuning system (mean tone tuning) of the period makes the affekt of a given key even more marked. Three varying examples from eighteenth-century repertoire bear witness to and support this idea.

  • The key of C major is associated with simplicity, joy, and purity as is evidenced in Sonatina in C Major, op. 36, no. 1 by Clementi 

  • The key of F# minor is associated with melancholy, gloom, and discontentment as can be heard in Prussian Sonata for Piano, Wq 48, no. 6 by C. P. E. Bach. 

  • The key of A major is associated with playfulness, jesting, and gaiety as is found in Sonata in A Major, op. 2, no. 2 by Beethoven.

Understanding the intentionality of eighteenth-century composers’ choices allows the modern pianist the opportunity to develop a new perspective regarding Classical Era repertoire. Look at a new piece of music from the Classical Era (to avoid pre-conceived notions).  Using eighteenth century conceptual understanding, experiment with various approaches to incorporate the elements into the fabric of the piece with an end goal of expressing affekt.

  • Analyze the form of the piece. What is the musical concept?  Is this a minuet, a waltz, or a march?
  • Examine the meter. Based on the time signature should the piece be heavy and majestic or light and frivolous?
  • Examine the chosen note values to determine the described affekt.
  • Determine the key centers in the piece. What affekt clue is the composer providing from these key centers?
  • Much of eighteenth-century scoring leaves room for individual input that allows for changes or variations in articulation, rhythmic and dynamic grouping, pedaling, textural balance, and use of agogics to create the desired affekt. Use of Urtext editions is crucial to achieve this goal.

Conceptual elements come first. It may seem easier to focus on physical execution details such as note values, articulation, and ornaments but the over-riding point (affekt) may be entirely missed. When time is taken to work through concepts first it will pay handsomely in terms of overall practice efficiency and historically informed outcomes. The reward will be understanding and executing the gestalt of eighteenth century performance practice: affekt and good taste. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Discipline – It’s not a Dirty Word!

 As musicians we live with, struggle with, and reap the benefits from our discipline. During these final weeks of winter I find myself weary of the incessantly cloudy, frigid, blustery, monotonous, weather. And I consequently find my interest in any form of discipline waning. A closer look at discipline has provided a lift to propel me through until Spring arrives – as I hope it will do for you.

The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (2016, Oxford University Press) provides four definitions of discipline. Let’s take a look at how they relate directly to the study of music.

          1.      the practice of training people to obey rules and orders and punishing them if they do not; 
                 the controlled behavior or situation that results from this training 

Most often musicians begin music study with a teacher at a young age. The teacher assigns rules or expectations for the amount of practice to be achieved each week with parental support to back up the expectations at home.  It the expectations are not met, punishment ensues: loss of privileges, fear of disappointing or a scolding from the teacher, a poor performance at lesson or in recital. All of these external methods do have the capability of changing behavior…for a while.  Much research has been conducted to support this premise. 

Although the results of this form of discipline are not long-lasting, it may be the best initial means to achieve the end until other forms of discipline can kick in and take over.  I encourage parents to implement negative consequences to impart on the student the need to follow the “rules of the roost” until they can see the inherent positive rewards for their work. And as a trained pedagogue, I provide much guidance and many positive aides to encourage accomplishing goals, which leads us to the next definition.

     2.      a method of training your mind or body or of controlling your behavior; an area of activity                where this is necessary

It is necessary for the student to seek a teacher to learn how to train the mind and body to be able to attain and improve skill.  Moreover, it is imperative to seek out a master-teacher who is proficient at the instrument and has pedagogical skill to be able to impart their knowledge to another.  It is here that internal discipline begins – a discipline that feeds on itself and creates the inner-drive to want to learn more. Once we have accomplished something well, the desire to learn more and work harder is self-perpetuating. This is when the external “because I said so” is no longer necessary because a love and affinity to the art has developed at a proficient level.

     3.      the ability to control your behavior or the way you live, work, etc. [oftentimes referred to                as self-discipline]

And here we are in winter; aware of the negative consequences of not practicing (being grounded, having a bad performance), aware of the positive consequences of practicing (becoming a better musician, having a great performance), but we just don’t wanna!  This is when we avoid “I’ll just play through things for today” because this is not practicing to improve. This is when we are disciplined and look at small, miniscule goals and improvements to carry us through the dark moments. When we choose one thing in our practice today that will carry us through to tomorrow. When we know that cleaning up that pesky four-measure spot or truly nailing down the dynamic plan today will pay handsomely tomorrow, next week, or at the next performance! When we do this, we have mastered the ability to control our behavior in music study – we are disciplined!

     4.      (formal) an area of knowledge; a subject that people study or are taught, especially in a                 university

When we have spent enough time dealing with and tackling definitions one through three, we can honestly say that we embrace the discipline of music study.

I invite you to take time during these final weeks of winter to examine your discipline.  What is motivating you today?  What are the positive elements that you can feed to drive you in your art; that will carry you through those “I just don’t wanna” stages? If we take the time to examine, understand, and adjust our perspective as it relates to discipline, growth opportunities to improve as musicians and in all areas of our life will appear. Find something you love.  Seek out a teacher to help you improve. Feed on and let your successes propel you to the next level. Be positively disciplined as you study your discipline.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Fortepiano: Capturing the Sound Aesthetic for Modern Playing

This post was first published by Oxford University Press:

Grappling with performing the music of early Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn on the modern piano can be a daunting experience. The modern piano is not the instrument for which their music was composed. Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn all preferred Viennese pianos (today called the fortepiano) and the traits from the inside out are distinctly different than those of the modern piano. A comparison between various physical traits of the modern Steinway D grand piano and the 1790 Walter five-octave fortepiano sheds light on the divergence between the instrument of “yesteryear” and today.
  • The modern grand weighs 990 pounds compared to the fortepiano at 187 pounds. This leaves a modern instrument capable of withstanding much more tension – 45,014 pounds of iron string tension compared to 2,094 pounds of steel string tension on the fortepiano.
  • The modern piano contains heavier keys attached to much larger and thicker hammers that are covered by felt and wool compared to keys half the weight with hammers that are covered by 1-3 thin layers of buckskin or leather on the fortepiano.
  • The key dip on the modern piano is three times that of the fortepiano and requires four times the energy to set the key in motion.
  • The modern piano covers seven and one-half octaves compared to five octaves on the fortepiano.
  •  The naturals are slightly wider and longer and the sharps are slightly narrower on the modern piano.  
  • One travels twice the distance in height going from the naturals to the sharps on the modern piano
From these physical comparisons one finds a distinctly different sound aesthetic is experienced on the fortepiano.  The fortepiano is rich in overtones with a silvery tone. The physical characteristics facilitates quick action, responsiveness, and great finesse. The sound on the fortepiano is quickly and crisply articulated with clear tone definition, and a variety of colors. An important characteristic on the fortepiano is its ability articulate musical thoughts. One idea may be quickly brought to the forefront and with equal ease and speed it may recede into the background. Indeed, the fortepiano is the perfect instrument for realizing music from the Classical Era.  Follow the links to hear the sound aesthetic realized on the instrument for which it was composed. 

How does one accomplish that different sound aesthetic on such a markedly different instrument as the modern piano?  The answer begins simply   play “as if” one is playing a fortepiano.  Play as if:
  • you are playing a fortepiano.  This will require considerable time listening to performances on fortepiano to acquaint your ear with the sound. Take time to listen to esteemed artists such as Malcolm Bilson, Robert Levin, and Tom Beghin as they perform on period instruments.  
  • your instrument is capable of clear definition in the low register.
  • your instrument is capable of quicker responsiveness and crisply articulated attack/release.
  • the changes from forte to piano are more about nuance and subtlety than loud and soft.
  •  you have only five octaves to achieve extremes in range.

As Tilman Skowroneck advocates in Beethoven the Pianist, we must learn what the score tells us about the music and what the score tells us to strive for or expect from the instrumentany instrument. We must continually listen to the feedback from the instrument to strive for the Classical aesthetic, making our modern piano translate the clarity, finesse, and vibrancy of the fortepiano. Doing so will provide new discoveries for energized and revitalized personal performing.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

What’s in Your New Year Tool Box?

Here we are, inviting another New Year into our lives.  What does this mean to us as musicians?  What new opportunities are there to embrace?  Of course, there is new music to learn, new programs to prepare, and new performances to work toward.  But, if we work toward all of these new things in the same old way aren’t we simply playing the same song, different verse? As you try on other New Year resolutions try on some music resolutions as well.
  • Go to more live performances that feature professional artists.  We can’t get better if we don’t know what better sounds like!
  •   Read a book about a new musical concept, a musician you would like to know better, or an instrument.
  •   Explore the formal structure of a new piece before playing it.
  • Count everything out loud. The amount of cohesion and focus will surprise you!
  • Play the left hand alone to listen for the “driver of the bus."
  • Determine the high point in each section and for the piece. Build your playing around it.
  •  Spend some time each week improving one or more specific technical aspects.
  • Use each dynamic change starting places in practice. Not only will you notice them, it will provide guidance in determining structure and high points.
  • Make music with another musician. This is especially important for pianists, who spend much of their time making music alone. 
  •  Sing each line of your piece.  For pianists this is extremely helpful to naturally find high places, low places, and resting places. 
  •  Orchestrate your piece. Now as you practice, see how you can make your piece sound “as if” it is a flute, clarinet, oboe, trombone, or saxophone!
  •  Perform more. We get better at performing by performing. Take your music to the local senior center. Volunteer to play for church. Offer to play at a local soup kitchen or homeless shelter. Let your music brighten the lives of others.

Start small.  Choose one item and add it to your musical tool box.  Each month add one more. Before you know it you will find your perspective, playing, and performing, dramatically transformed!

Happy New Year and happy playing!