As a resident of NYC I enjoy opportunities (sometimes) to chat with strangers on local public transportation. Yesterday a fellow about my age offered me the seat inside of his aisle seat. A few stops down the road I recognized an old friend, a painter, seated across the bus facing me and the two of us struck up a conversation about our mutual work; the gentleman got interested and asked me what I do.
I described myself as a classical pianist who still plays because as a child I never practiced my lessons. I played constantly, fooling around, falling in love with the sounds. I found myself speculating that the love of sound is probably more common among jazz musicians than classical, alas, and how this is driving people away from some of the great music of all time.
Then this morning I get an inquiry from someone whose kids want to study piano. How do I broach the subject with someone I do not know and who may believe that practicing is all there is to success?
At some point it became accepted that late works were ipso facto better than early works. This would seem to imply that a composer's impending death renders a work more interesting or more important than burgeoning life as the composer takes his or her first steps into the unknown.
What is really happening here?
I cannot pretend to answer the question within a single blog post. But I have no doubt that it can be difficult to discern the seeds of greatness in an early Mozart or Beethoven sonata, given that their low number all too often associates them with early stages of piano lessons.
And I have no doubt that concert programs made up entirely of last works risk reducing their meaning to some distanced sanctimonious state of mind that I find unreal, lacking in vitality.
Music used to be concerned with sound, real sound. We need to keep in mind how the definition has changed under our very noses, helped if not actually pushed, by the MuzApp industry. Dependence on recordings to "increase" appreciation has, in fact, dampened any sense of participatory listening, which is what real music is and upon which its survival depends.
In order for real music to survive we must be more insistent that real sound is what we hear when we go to concerts, rather than the imitation of recorded sound which has, alas, become the too-frequent norm.
If I were alone to notice this I would not bring it up so publicly.
A music lesson, not a reading lesson. He was a master at matching vowels and consonants as separate elements of words that produced meaning on their own, meaning inherent in their repetition, independent of the literal meaning of the words themselves. Immersion in the word as object to be savored and enjoyed in all its separate elements is left out of the training of musicians, who tend to look down on words as being too -- too what, exactly? Too simple?
Take a lesson from Dr. Seuss: Get a pet!
After years of requiring Music Appreciation in many high schools and colleges we are stuck with the amazing fact that many people emerge from these well-meaning structures with no idea of what music actually is, that is, with no idea of how to listen.
Listening is the most difficult skill I ever had to learn.
Listening is not ear-training.
Taking dictation is not comprehending.
Listening involves hearing the whole, not the dissected parts.
A well-crafted composition becomes part of your physical memory even as you take it in. Hearing is a physical activity, not a mental exercise. Some people combine the two effortlessly, as professional sportsmen and women analyze as they move, calculate as they throw the ball. But it is not required that you master that level of skill in order to enjoy the results of a composer's hard work.
Inflection gives the difference between periods and question marks, for example, whether the syllable be strong or weak. We learn to read rhythms in terms of strong and weak without the necessary inflection.
Slurs indicate inflection much more than they indicate anything predictable like phrasing.
And I can immediately think of more than one downbeat that functions like a question mark.
Funny how formulas creep into our minds, displacing openness to the possibility that they exist in order to be disproven. For example, take sentence structure. Everyone knows that a properly constructed sentence consists of a subject and a predicate, in that order. Except when not: in order to build suspense perhaps, or in a poem.
Similarly in music we learn that upbeats are followed by downbeats. This may be true on paper but not necessarily in the sounds. Just how one manipulates that "necessary" connection depends on many things.
I have only recently come to appreciate the extent to which the slur mark indicates a greater moment of suspense between the up- and the down beat. Particularly in Dvorak.
In the Science section of the NYTimes, therefore, it has to be significant, appeared an article describing a study of 18th-century piano technique undertaken on an electric "piano."
Think about this for just a second: The most extraordinary aspects of the newly invented piano would have affected touch and resonance almost more than anything else. How can this possibly register on an electric instrument?
Every time this kind of substitution gets made in the name of research we should all cringe, not just me.
We are being studied to death.
Music is being processed to death.
Sound is already almost non-existent and the culture is working hard to stamp out what little of its life remains.
When it is transformed into the truly intriguing composition it has always been, waiting for someone to notice the tempo marking (molto vivace) and the note values. Anything marked vivace invites attention to the non-metric sequences of like note values, as opposed to allegro types of tempo in which bar lines and note values are somehow proportional.
If respected, this piece becomes downright Beethovian in its subtlety: much more difficult to play and far more intriguing to listen to, for sure.
Perhaps the nicest, certainly the most meaningful thing anyone can say about my piano playing is that it's human. Yesterday someone said it was like listening to someone talking. That is exactly what I aspire to.
When people hear that they know I am speaking not just to them, but to the composer and he (or she) also to us all.
That is the point of music. Not the frozen-in-perfection model promulgated by the industry that dupes most people into mistaking flawlessness for anything real.