Archive for the ‘Measured Passion’ Category


Braving the Silence

June 19, 2010

The fifth installment of Measured Passion

Braving the Silence

Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia winds along the rugged coastline of Cape Breton Island.  Seabirds soar, whales jump, lupins bloom.  The roadway feels precariously narrow as it straddles mountaintops that preside over green valleys.

The Middle Head walking trail leads out along a wooded peninsula.  It necks down to a few hundred feet before widening again at the tip.  There, a brief, grassy pasture drops off steeply into the Atlantic Ocean on one side and into a peaceful bay on the other.

I didn’t walk out to the evergreen-covered tip of the peninsula.  The sky was cheery and the breeze was playful.  I stayed at the little bridge of gentle land.  It had a charm and an aura that I didn’t want to leave.  Serenity.  Surreal, idyllic serenity.  It was a place out of a dream.

We took a breath, the earth and I together.  The trees covering the bluff broke into a green rolling field.  The coastlines approached each other almost enough to make an island of the spruce outcropping—but didn’t.  I rested on a little rock, soaking in all that surrounded me.  I consciously said to myself, “remember this.”

Music pauses to help us know where we are.  The silence gives us perspective.  It heightens anticipation for the song to go on.

The marks we see in music for larger pauses—breaks in the rhythmic structure—are fermatas and caesuras (//).  Fermatas tell us to keep holding.  For a pianist, unlike most instruments, the sound will die out.  Caesuras mark an intended break in the music.  Sometimes just a breath, but other times longer for more impact.

When a piece is affective to me, I will improvise fermatas and caesuras liberally.

But it takes courage to be silent sometimes.

Practicing pauses and silence is as important as practicing the notes and rhythms.  You must know when it’s time to keep silent.  You should experiment with how long to wait.  At emotional high points in a song, I may stretch a pause as long as I can without being awkward.  It is certainly dramatic.  It feels passionate.  But it’s actually being brave enough to do nothing.

I often find myself breaking with silence after a verse, before re-entering a chorus.

A different kind of example is in “Morning Has Broken.”  One could easily put a caesura or fermata between every phrase of the song.  Usually I wouldn’t do that.  But a few well-placed breaks, to my ear, bring a sense of life and happiness to the next phrase.

“Morning Has Broken” is a favorite song of mine.  Its music evokes the lyrics.  It seems fresh and alive—urging us to pause and alter our perspective.  Like a dreamy pasture along the seashore.


Practicing for Imperfection I

May 22, 2010

The fourth installment of Measured Passion

Practice for Imperfection 1

My mom, her mom and I attended many a home tour together in our time.  We wanted to see what designers would do with a blank slate.  I loved the layers of textures and colors.  Lighting, especially, was always more dramatic and nuanced than in “normal” houses.  The mixes of patterns from one fabric to another, how they can play off of each other, fascinated me.

Interiors are fertile ground for analogies about musical texture and shading.  But it’s more fun to talk about grandma.

Grandma had several standard complaints about show homes that she shared with the tour guides, architects and designers—much to her daughter’s embarrassment.

In a home with high ceilings: “How do you dust up there?”

Aghast at the size of a whirlpool tub: “You need a lifeguard to be in there!”

When we got back to grandma’s house, she would say, “It looks like nobody lives those houses!  At least my house looks lived in.”  It never occurred to me to reply, “But grandma, no one pays to see your house.”

Grandma was on to something, though.

People aren’t generally at home in a trash heap; but people generally don’t live in austerely perfect homes, either.  Similarly, ticket scalpers don’t hang around first grade violin concerts; but people don’t like mechanically flawless music, either.  When canned music is played exactly by a computer, we can tell.  Its perfection rings false.

Depending on the music you’re playing, there’s a certain looseness, an imperfection, that’s desirable, if not expected.  Even in the most uptight classical pieces, it’s the little inflections in amongst the choppy staccatos that reveal a human touch.  Those inflections reach out and touch humans.  If we want to play music that has feeling and personality, we must allow it to be imperfect.

Figuring out what imperfections we want, that is the challenge.

Let’s visit rhythm and tempo first.  I will likely muck up the official musical definitions, but rhythm and tempo are different concepts.

Rhythm is about the regularness of timing in the piece.  How should the measures themselves behave?  Legato or staccato?  Lazily strolling through a park or dancing on a rooftop?  Most of the time, it’s better to be regular with the rhythms.  Start with a rhythm and stick with it throughout a piece.  There might be sections that contrast from one another, but erratic changes in rhythm don’t, in general, translate well in an audience’s mind.  The rhythm of a piece can usually be practiced with a metronome.

Tempo takes a wider view of the piece as a whole.  This is where more emotion and feeling get injected.  I love to play rubato—literally robbing tempo from one area of the song and giving it to another; to ritardando in one section and accelerando to make up for it in the next.  Sometimes it’s marked.  Many times, I just make it up.  Changes in tempo are not easily practiced with a metronome.

To put tempo and rhythm, or any other nuances for that matter, into practice, we need to develop an understanding of the music we’re playing first.  What is it like in the beginning, the middle, and the end?  What is it saying to you?  How does the whole piece make you feel?  What is your favorite part?  What is the most important part?

Your answers to those questions can be used to drive your interpretation.  Subsequently, they drive how you apply rhythm and tempo to it.

The only way to know more is to try it out.  Review a piece you play.  Pick a section that is more emotional for you, personally. What happens if you speed that section up?  What happens if you slow it down?  Which do you like better?

Sometimes I’m listening to harmonies in the song to find the answers.  I love to stretch out the tension of a chord that begs to be resolved.  Just before “O Holy Night” jumps to the high G at the same time it resolves to a C major chord, I slow down because I want to emphasize that jump.  I want to give the harmonies before the jump “room” to sink in—I don’t want them lost in my rush to get to my favorite part.

Finding meaningful analogies for the music can help us create those images for others.

For rhythms, does the song feel like it’s … breathing? … walking? … floating? … wandering? … bobbing? … marching? … skipping? … rushing? … crashing waves on the sand, or gentle lapping at a lakeshore?

For an arching change in tempo, does the piece feel like it’s … a baseball pitcher winding up? … the precarious pause at the top of a roller coaster? … an airplane taking off? … a space shuttle blasting off? … that instant when you’re looking over the top bar of a swing-set? … flowing winds across fields of wheat?

There are no hard and fast rules to live by in seeking imperfection.  It’s all interpretation.  You make the music.   What is it saying to you?  What analogies does it inspire?  The most important voice to listen to is your own.


Play Like You’re an Orchestra

May 9, 2010

The third installment of Measured Passion.

Play Like You’re an Orchestra

I don’t remember the first time my parents took me to the Paramount Music Palace on Washington Street in Indianapolis; I only remember wanting to go back.  It was hallowed ground of my childhood.  When I was young it was popular to boot.  No other restaurant I knew had an entry hall that wrapped around the building for the comfort of amusement-park sized crowds that flocked there.

Inside was the Mighty Wurlitzer Organ.  The Paramount was a huge, theatre-like space.  But it didn’t seem as though the Wurlitzer was in the building so much as the building was in the Wurlitzer.  The organ pipes were housed in a separate room behind clear shutters that opened with the organist’s volume pedal.  The wall of pipes might have been 75′ wide and 50′ tall.  The console hid down in a sort of orchestra pit until it magnificently spun up to stage level with a four-ranked keyboard and art deco, gilded side panels.

And there was more.  The organist directed a cornucopia of electronic miracles around the palace.  Bubble machines, a disco ball, xylophones, real bells and real whistles.  Automated drum sets bounced on the wall.  Trumpets blasted from the balcony.  One of my favorite effects was the animated marquee-style lighting that danced around the entire restaurant during a big finale, like the last chorus of Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.”

At the center of it all was the organist.  He was a hero and an idol in my young mind.  I wanted to play that organ.  I wanted to build it in my house.  I wanted to have all the gadgets and lights and control the whole thing like some kind of Jules Verne musician-scientist.

Calisthenics on an organ bench don’t appeal to me any more.  But I still have an orchestra in my head each time I play.  Playing a piano, I’m trying to evoke all kinds of other tones and instruments that I hear in the music.  Sometimes I know them from a recording; sometimes they’re just in my head.

When I play the unexpectedly beautiful theme John Williams wrote for Jurassic Park, I feel the warm depth of cellos.  The triumphant final chorus of “Defying Gravity” from Wicked blares trumpets in my mind, even if they don’t come out of my fingertips.  Intimate moments of Les Misérables were often accentuated with gentle guitar arpeggios.  If I weren’t trying to be a timpani player at Christmastime, the knickknacks on my aunts’ pianos might not be so upset.

My efforts at orchestration are both conscious and unconscious.  Try it the next time you play.  How would you play differently in order to emulate a violin? A harp? A glockenspiel?  A human voice?  The piano, of course, is not a chameleon.  But you may hear nuances in your playing that change with this mental trick.  Things you may not even realize you’re doing will add subtle textures to your music.


The Paramount Music Palace was closed and demolished in 1995, much to my dismay.  I spent the years between then and now trying to find where the Mighty Wurlitzer had gone.  In writing this piece, I took another stab at web searching the instrument.  At long last, I found it.  You can find out more at  (Please forgive their lowbrow intro music selection.)


Practice with an Audience (Sometimes)

April 25, 2010

The second installment of Measured Passion.  This entry is probably blasphemy for professional musicians.  Lord knows they shouldn’t be taking advice from me anyway!

Practice with an Audience (Sometimes)

The Romans are sure of victory … for their exercises are battles without bloodshed, and their battles bloody exercises.

— Josephus (37 AD – 100 AD), Jewish historian

When my brother got married, I was living at home between semesters of college.  I was to play preludes before the wedding.

I didn’t intend for my practices at home to be judged as performances—they were brutal repetitions unfit for tone-deaf dogs.  My mom was naturally underwhelmed by my continual mutilations of Pachelbel et al—embellished as they were with impromptu stopping, repeating and cursing.  Mom didn’t say it, but she was clearly concerned that I would ruin the the family name, let alone the wedding.  I often heard, “I think you better play that again!” from across the house that summer.  We were ready to strangle each other on the day HMS Wedded Bliss was to set sail.

I knew, but couldn’t verbalize at the time, that I wouldn’t perform the way I was practicing.  I was trying to hammer out whole songs as they were written, knowing full well that I would hatchet them down at the eleventh hour to something I could play.  I always felt it was an underhanded compromise—that I was cheating the audience out of the real music that was beyond my abilities.

When more relatives found fiancés, I had a lot of weddings to play.  I realized my practices had to improve.  I needed to understand the performance while I was practicing.  To borrow theatre lingo, I needed to get the music on its feet.  In the process, I think I actually learned how to rehearse properly.

Here’s what I do now when I’m formally learning a piece of music (i.e. I will play the piece this day for these people):  During a practice I will start and end with a mock performance.  I sit down and put my watch on the music stand.  I imagine being at the performance site with the audience.  I place my hands in position.  I take a deep breath in my stomach, smile, and begin when the second hand hits 12.  Showtime.  No stopping for mistakes.  No correcting rough sections.  If it is a rhythmic piece I’ll sometimes use a metronome to keep the tempo.  If not, I mentally keep myself in the flow of the music.  Any errors are handled as I would while performing—smile and keep playing.

Starting with a mock performance, I hear, see and feel what needs work.  Afterwards I can review the sections slowly, play each hand separately, work out fingering, etc.  I also get to know where I’m taking shortcuts and decide earlier in the process whether the shortcut is acceptable or if I need to learn the real notes and rhythms.  Ending practice with a similar run-through lets me know if things are improving.

As a side effect, I’ve changed my opinion about compromising the music.  For the amateur musician, we don’t need to hit all the notes, use exact fingering and count the intervals with mathematical perfection in order for people to feel the music.  Rather, we need to make the piece flow in performance.  Practicing as a performance lets me feel the cues, stresses, high points and tender passages that connect the piece with me, and hopefully with the audience.

… strongly hit the downbeat here …

… let this measure “tumble” …

… accelerate for excitement here …

I don’t think I will ever be at ease when I perform.  I regularly rub sweat off my hands and remind myself to relax and breathe.  But I feel much better about it than I did in the past.  Performances are like surfing, balancing oneself just ahead of the cresting wave.  Rehearsing with no turning back puts us on the wave more often—mentally at least—and makes us more comfortable there.


You’re Bigger Than the Music

April 18, 2010

My cousin jokingly asked me to write emails to her with advice on playing music passionately.  She is a talented pianist who thinks she plays mechanically.  I started a series of essays to grant her request.  (I don’t need to be asked twice to write something.)  I’ll copy them here under a working title of Measured Passion.  This is from the first email:

You’re Bigger Than the Music

I played baseball for six or seven years of my early life.  In my childhood sense of time, it seemed like I had played for all eternity.

At the first sign of spring, my dad would want me to play catch with him in the front yard.  He was possessed by a futile optimism that some metamorphosis could occur over the winter transforming my sad ineptitude into competitive drive and coordinated talent.  My father’s annual hopes were inevitably dashed when I was panic-stricken by the first approaching projectile and crouched feebly under my unloved mitt.

Dad would march over to me in irritation, perhaps embarrassed that his neighbors could see his sissy son diving for cover from a baseball.  “Look,” he said, picking up the ball and holding it in front of me.  “Do you see how much bigger you are than the ball?  It’s nothing to be afraid of.”  (Had I known the physical definition of “momentum” at the time, I could have argued that there was plenty to be afraid of.)

For me, bringing emotion to music starts with a paraphrase of dad: you are bigger than the music you play.  Without you, what we term as “music” is nothing of the kind.  It is busy notation on a page.  The piano is just a box holding strings in tension.  Without you, they are as dumb and silent as a baseball and a bat.

You make the music.  You interpret the curious symbols.  You command the instrument.  Not because you will yourself to believe you are bigger.  It is intrinsic to being a musician—just like I was always bigger than the baseball.  You make the music.  And the music that you create, regardless of its technical merit, is—and always will be—uniquely yours.  Your music is an expression of all the experiences you bring to it.   Your memories affect what you hear the printed music saying.  And vice-versa—the music you create may say something new to you that becomes part of your experience.

It’s much to my dad’s credit that he would spend time playing catch with me.  He could easily have given up and focused on my sports-oriented brother.  Years of toil and frustration paid off finally, though, when the light bulb came on for me in my very last season of playing in little league.  I finally understood that I was bigger than the ball.  Previously, I was fearful of baseballs, coaches, teammates and humiliation.  In that one final summer, I was a kid having fun playing a game.