Ode to Messiaen

A few months ago I was walking home when I passed a bird singing in a tree. The thing went on and on and on. Thinking of Olivier Messiaen and how he was an ornithologist who incorporated birdsong into many of his compositions, and of how he worked with the likes of Pierre Schaeffer in the making of musique concrete, I thought it would be good to title this track Ode to Messiaen.

 

This thing sat for months in Cubase while I figured out exactly what to do with it. I higgled the interesting sections and listened to it repeatedly, but it just didn’t come together. Finally after clearly all the other projects out of the way, it started to crystallize one night. Maybe I’d finally gotten enough sleep or something.

One friend asked tongue-in-cheek if I’m trying to put people to sleep with this track, which is odd; I thought I’d be driving people crazy. In either case, enjoy the nap, or the drive, whichever is appropriate.

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Townes Van Zandt: Live at the Old Quarter

I was browsing through Rough Trade record store in Brooklyn a few years ago when I found Townes Van Zandt’s four-sided Live at the Old Quarter, recorded during a week of performances at the iconic venue in Houston in July 1973. I already knew and loved Van Zandt but didn’t know this record at all. As I often do in such situations, I took a picture of the record and sent it to a friend, in this case, the same guy who introduced me to Van Zandt in the first place.

“How is this one?” I asked.

“Gee I hope it’s alright,” he said unenthusiastically.

I decided to take a chance.

I got the record home, and it turned out to be just Townes, his guitar, his music, and his cheesy sense of humor. It took a little while for the album to grow on me. As many have observed, Townes didn’t always have the greatest voice, and a few of the songs are annoying, such as White Freightliner Blues. It sounds like something you’d hear on the radio twelve times a day, and the people in the audience clapped along to it. I almost always detest music that people clap along with. To this day, if I listen to this album in a digital format, I skip White Freightliner Blues.

But it was also this record that introduced me to such gems as Poncho and Lefty, Why She’s Actin’ This Way, and To Live’s to Fly, the last of these titles being the inscription on Van Zandt’s gravestone.

The very same week I bought this record, I got to the end of my rope with a stressful job, which I quit, leaving a lot of extra time on my hands. All I did the rest of that summer was read the poetry of Allen Ginsberg and drink vodka. But slowly I noticed something else: I kept going back to Live at the Old Quarter. I must have listened to it every day.

I was endeared to this record because of its sparseness. It is not overproduced. Because there’s no back-up band or even rhythm section to shove the music into a treadmill-like lilt, Townes’s guitar picking comes through, especially in songs like his cover of Merle Travis’s Nine Pound Hammer.

The poetry comes through, too. Even when his voice wavers, the work of his pen is earth-shaking. There may be no better example than If I Needed You:

In the night forlorn

All the morn is born

And the morning shines

With the lights of love.

You will miss sunrise 

If you close your eyes.

That would break my heart in two.

This song has been covered by some of the greats—Doc Watson and EmmyLou Harris. But no one sings it as powerfully as Townes did at the Old Quarter, because it was the simplicity of his delivery that made it so powerful.

This album has become the standard by which I measure all of Townes’s other recordings. I confess to having a prejudice for live recordings and spartan, demo-like sounds. For example, my favorite Bruce Springsteen album is Nebraska, and it’s precisely because of its simplicity. A few of Van Zandt’s records strike a good compromise between the stripped-down Old Quarter sound and the commercial Nashville studio approach, for example, High and Low and In Between, and Townes’s eponymous album, but I’m always going back to this one. When I’m on the floor or climbing the walls and need to be redeemed by his music, no other record will do.

Townes’s music is about the usual stuff—love and loss, regret, maybe a little irony. Sometimes death. Anyone can leverage these topics to get attention, whether they have experience with them or not, but one gets the impression that Townes lived through all his songs, even if he admitted oftentimes he wasn’t sure of the meaning of his own lyrics. At heart he was a mystic, and at times this mysticism yielded poetry that defies explanation, and yet it is gripping and powerful, unlike the solemn pablum of those who merely have an image of themselves as a mystic.

I’ve played Live at the Old Quarter for many friends, and it’s never failed to impress. I took it with me to visit a friend once. I figured we’d get through one side. After all, country isn’t for everyone, even if it’s Townes Van Zandt. I started with side 2, my favorite, which I listened to in bed many nights, hoping to still be awake when it got to Nine Pound Hammer. When that was over, my friend looked at me and said, “More.”

So I played another side.

More.”

A third side.

More!

We finished the whole damn record.

To this day when I listen to it I never want it to be over. Maybe I’ll listen to it again tonight.

Review: The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

A few years ago I made an acquaintance who turned out to be an illustrator. While this really isn’t anything like being a musician, the two disciplines do share an artistic and creative mindset. Naturally we got to talking about the frustrations that can happen in our fields, and how the uphill climb can feel interminable. He recommended The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, and I immediately put it on my Christmas list.

When it arrived under the tree, I started reading it immediately, resisted half the advice, and gave up after chapter 9. It sat for three years while I told myself I’d do it another time. Then I went through a series of disappointments and disruptions that put my life in chaos.

I fell into a grinding depression. It wasn’t the kind where I was on the floor sad; it was more like exhaustion and a short fuse. Minor annoyances could ruin my day. By late August of this year I’d lost patience with my own behavior. I was living in a fog, too, unsure of the next steps in my life, and lacking the energy to do many of them in any case. So I made a deal with myself: do The Artist’s Way, or therapy. Something needed to give. I chose The Artist’s Way.

Artist's Way

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

Julia Cameron addresses her book to those she calls in “artistic recovery”—artists who’ve been somehow wounded by mistreatment or ill fortune, or paralyzed by fear or doubt. That seems like an extreme diagnosis, but the more of the book I did (you don’t read this book, you do it), the more sense it made to me, and the more it seemed to apply to my own life. There are twelve chapters, each of which is designed to guide a week’s work. Each is addressed to recovering a particular aspect of the artistic life—a sense of safety, a sense of abundance, or a sense of strength, to name a few.

Each week has its own specific exercises geared towards the appropriate goals. Some of them have obvious utility, such as listing those who’ve supported your art, or those who haven’t, but others might seem pointless or hokey. Cameron acknowledges this and cautions that the exercises we most want to dismiss are ones we might well need and should think twice about skipping. I did better with this some weeks but not others. I couldn’t bring myself to collect rocks, write and mail a letter to myself, or make a “God jar,” for instance. But now that I’m done with the book, I’m going to visit some of the exercises I let go the first time. It should be added that for every exercise that I couldn’t stand there was at least one I just didn’t have time for. Many of these exercises have unexpected but highly effective ways of arriving at the truth of a matter, or creating action items. My favorites were usually speed-writing lists. These are particularly good at cutting through the b.s. and getting to the heart of a matter, and it often left me asking myself, “Where did that come from?”

The two main cornerstones of the course, however, are the morning pages and the artist’s date.

The person who told me about this book mentioned the morning pages first and foremost and swore by them. In this activity, which is much like journalling, you write three pages of stream-of-consciousness writing each morning for roughly a half hour. This is followed up with a series of affirmations, such as, “I have the right to be an artist.” Hokey, but it works. Believe me. You can’t write something ten times a day for twelve weeks and not address it.

The artist’s date is time you set aside for yourself to replenish the artistic well—maybe taking a long walk, buying a new record and listening to it, or going to an art gallery. I was better with the morning pages than the artist’s date, but I do see the point of it and am getting better at giving myself the playtime I need to experience rejuvenation and inspiration.

The turning point for me came in a cemetery, of all places—the Woodlands Cemetery in Philadelphia, to be exact. I’d been past it many times and always wanted to check it out. It seemed pretty from the outside, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. As I got lost in between larger-than-life monuments and under trees turning auburn in late September, I felt like I was in a different world.

Grave of Thomas Eakins. Woodlands Cemetery, Philadelphia

The grave of artist Thomas Eakins. Woodlands Cemetery, Philadelphia.

 

Grave Thomas Eakins

The famous artist Thomas Eakins is buried there, but I didn’t know this until I showed up. His grave is hard to find, and it took me several attempts, “cheating” with my phone. I was about to give up when I caught myself looking past the angel statue that I was using as a landmark to find his stone, which lays flat along the ground and cannot be seen from more that a few feet away. I stood over his grave, and my body felt electrified. I’ve always enjoyed visiting the graves of inspiring famous people. There’s nothing but skin and bones and dust there, but it’s as close as I’ll ever get to them, and that’s exciting for me.

I left the cemetery feeling like a different person. The first time I attempted this book, I never did an artist’s date. Blew them off. Now I was convinced of their indispensability.

As I made my way through this book, I noticed my mood lifting. I was a little less tired, a little less irritable, a little more healthy in my decisions. Then some quiet but important changes started happening. There was even some of what Cameron calls “synergy,” that is, when good things that you’re hoping for just happen for no apparent reason at all. The full-blown version of Finale, the composition program I really needed, went on sale for 75% off. The song cycle that gathered dust for four years got the revision it needed. I started studying to become a personal trainer again after a long period of burnout. My composing and musique concrete mixing took off, but with a gentler undertone to my approach than the spartan isolation I enforced on myself before. I restarted this blog.

Then I did the unthinkable for anyone of my ilk: I scheduled two mini-vacations. These are not day trips. One is halfway across the country; the other is on the west coast. I have almost never allowed myself such outings.

Maybe all of this is a coincidence, but I doubt it. It seems so illogical and in many ways needlessly circuitous, but it works.

I will admit, however, that I deliberately ignored one piece of Cameron’s advice: fasting from reading. Her point in prescribing this is that many blocked creatives use reading as a distraction. But for me, I use it for ideas and inspiration. I left it aside, and I make no apologies for it. I believe the week I was supposed to avoid reading I was making my way through Pierre Schaeffer’s journals on musique concrete. I made a lot of progress in my work because of that book. That’s a subject for another post some day.

Other exercises Cameron assigns include not only digging up monsters from the past (the teacher that told you not to quit your day job, etc.) or our own limiting beliefs (I’ve never drawn before, how can I start now?), but also doing good things for yourself—activities as simple as enjoying the texture of a favorite fabric, lighting scented candles, or throwing out old, ratty clothes. Caution, though: some of the digging could drudge up some very powerful demons. I think it’s important to learn from these exercises but not indulge the hurt in a counterproductive way. If you need an inoculation against jerks, I recommend the Stoic philosophers.

Cameron has a semi-religious outlook that may be annoying to many, but the book is still profitable if this concept is somehow modified or even shelved, since the focus is on change from the inside out. The type-A reader (of which I am one) may sometimes feel coddled, but patience with the author is the best approach. She’s been teaching this course for years and knows exactly what she’s doing.

This isn’t a book everyone will like but it is a book almost everyone would benefit from. I suspect Cameron would agree, since she repeats several times that everyone is creative and simply needs to learn to tap into that potential. For now, I need to keep it handy on my desk as a continuing guide and reference. I feel ten times better than I did three months ago, but, like I felt when I first talked to my acquaintance about this book, I still have a long way to climb. The difference is that I’m now more likely to enjoy the trip.

Benedicta: Marian Chant from Norcia – The Monks of Norcia

I was perusing a new blog I discovered today, Music of Our Heart, when I found this short piece about the Benedictine Monks of Norcia and a chant CD they put out. I can’t believe I missed this, but I’m glad I found it eventually.

I love the differences in the way the monks of each monastery sing the chant. There are not only slight rhythmical and interpretational differences, not to mention variations in the manuscripts used in the different religious orders, there are also differences in vocal production and timbre. The monks of Solesmes have a nasal sound, the monks of Heiligenkreuz have a brilliant sound, and from this trailer, I gather that the monks of Norcia have a particularly robust sound. The variety of approaches is refreshing, and I can’t wait to get my hands on this CD of Marian chants by the monks at the monastery built by St. Benedict himself.

CBS Sunday Morning featured a segment on this morning’s show, “Chanting monks become best selling recording artists“.

I became intrigued on several levels  by what I heard and felt. I learned that Father Cassian Folsom hailed from Connecticut with a passion for music and reviving the Monastery of St. Benedict in Norcia, Italy.  Being a practicing Catholic with a sense of religious music devotion I couldn’t help but be enchanted by the story and its message.

Benedicta: Marian Chant from Norcia – The Monks of Norcia is a superlative recording. In my quest to write and share the wisdom of spirituality and the healing power of music, Marian chant strikes just the right religious chord in the  music of our heart.

The chanting and prayer put me at such peace. I hope you will allow the light of this recording into each of your respective hearts.

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Practicing and the 80/20 Rule

The 80/20 rule, often called the Pareto principle, states that 80% of your results come from 20% of your efforts. There are variations on this. Sometimes it’s 90/10 or even 95/5. It can be used to evaluate almost any situation, not just productivity, but also, say, to size up sources of pleasure or frustration.

I recently found an article published by author/podcaster Tim Ferriss applying the 80/20 principle to guitar practice, and it got me to thinking about how I use the same approach for my keyboard practice.

This isn’t about “hacking.” There are no hacks or magic formulas. This is about effectiveness, and who doesn’t want to be more effective when they practice?

fast fingers

If you play a musical instrument, practice is part of life. Life isn’t fair. I even have to practice my own compositions. Sadly, there are a few that are still unlearned.

Here are some considerations with 80/20 in mind:

Muscle Memory

Practicing is like being at the gym: you’re training your nervous system and muscle memory to accomplish certain tasks. You can’t force what isn’t in the body yet. You have to be methodical. Do people walk into the gym on the first day and do 100 pull-ups? Of course not. They have to work up to it. By the same token, you cannot simply will a piece of music into your fingers. I’m ashamed to admit that it took me much longer than it should have to figure this out.

Less is More

At the same time, you can’t just slave away mindlessly. When I was in college I was acquainted with a trumpet player who went to take a lesson from one of New York’s best orchestral musicians. “How much do you practice?” the teacher asked.

“Five and a half hours.”

“Five and a half hours of what!? I don’t care if you practice for five hours or five minutes. All that matters is getting the work done.”

Getting the work done. I’ve learned that the less material you focus on at once, the more you accomplish. Sometimes I even limit myself to spending a 30-minute practice session on one page of music. The baby steps are the ones that matter.

Fingerings

When I start on a new piece, before I do anything else, I decide on fingerings. Remember, you are training your muscle memory. This can’t happen if you’re using a different fingering every time. You can practice with a metronome until you’re blue in the face (I think that’s their main function, to make us crazy) but if your fingerings aren’t consistent you’re not getting anything done. Consistency creates consistency.

Isolation

Isolate hard parts and problem areas. It’s like laying siege on a city—isolation until capitulation. Isolate down to a section, a phrase, even a single note if necessary. Practice one hand at a time and work on one finger if necessary. If I keep missing a note, I practice in such a way that I lengthen that note or stop on it in order to solidify my technique in that spot.

Mistakes vs. Deficiencies

It is advantageous to know the difference between a mistake and a deficiency. If you make a mistake that is a one-time-in-a-thousand kind of thing, it’s usually best to ignore it. Otherwise you end up conjuring problems that didn’t need to exist. A deficiency is a persistent problem. Those are the matters that deserve our attention when we practice. Similarly, I never touch the pieces that play themselves, or conversely, the ones that seem to get worse with practice. I don’t know why, but I have a few of those, and they just go better if I wing it.

Simplicity

As a keyboardist, I have access to all kinds of fancy instruments with fancy buttons and funny sounds—organs, synthesizers, whatever. During practice, these machines often serve as a primary source of distraction. So I prefer to do most of my practicing at an acoustic piano. Choose your most basic instrument to limit distractions and foster flow.

Decide What to Ignore

About fifteen years ago, I was engaged to play the organ reduction of Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms with a local university chorus on very short notice. The reduction for the organ is clumsy, as it simply takes the full score and crams it onto an organ staff with little regard for idiomatic peculiarities. For example, there are numerous difficult runs that involve playing in octaves. Well, an organ plays the octaves for you, and trying to do that with any tasteful articulation would have been comical. So I dropped the top octave. I made that decision on the first perusal through the score. Let go of the idea that this is cheating. This isn’t a junior year jury, it’s a job.

Exercise the Brain

I do technique exercises occasionally, but I’ve stopped doing them in easy keys. Every piano player in the world knows Hanon. Most of us go comatose when we hear the exercises. I only do a few of them, but now I do them in keys like B major and G flat major. It makes me think and keeps me engaged. It gets stuff done. Don’t let yourself space out.

Slow

Above all, slow practice takes first place. I never practice at performance tempo unless I’m working a piece up for the first time. Tempo is relatively easy to achieve when everything else has been properly prepared. Don’t waste your time at performance tempo! If that’s how you’re practicing then you’re likely just learning your mistakes. The slow way is the fast way. Not even altering rhythms—dotting sixteenth notes and such—is any replacement for slowness. This is true whether you’ve got ten minutes or two hours to work. I used to resist slow practice, but now I savor it. It allows me to dig in to a composition and really see it for what it is. If I’m unwilling to practice something slowly, it usually means I probably shouldn’t be performing it in the first place.

By the same token I almost never play a piece straight through in practice. That’s just another waste of time. Focus on the problem areas. If your practice session sounds like a performance, it isn’t getting much done. If you want to play through a piece for pleasure, knock yourself out. Just don’t call it practice.

In the past few years I’ve had a harder time finding the time to practice. Abiding by these rules has helped me to keep my hat in the ring. Follow them yourself, and your repertoire just might be a little sturdier.

I would like to thank all of my teachers, each of whom tried to inculcate these lessons into me years before I wised up and started applying them.

 

Wedding Processionals: the Cure for Perfectionism

For about fifteen years after college, give or take, the primary source of my income was as a church organist. This might not sound too exciting, but there are a lot of challenges in the job to keep you on your toes.

As a high school and college student I had terrible performance anxiety. I would pick apart everything, even while it was still happening. There was no sense of flow. I was stuck in my own head and worried entirely too much about what other people thought. And I was an incurable perfectionist, which kept anything I did from being all that good.

When I graduated from college, I took a job playing the organ for a church, and I soon started playing for weddings, which are probably to this day the most stressful gigs I do. Not playing with my youth orchestra at Carnegie Hall at age 15. Not trying to remember a rock n roll set with three drinks in me. Weddings.

Every wedding is different, especially the processionals. Some have more bridesmaids, some less. Some have a ringbearer; others don’t. Some use one song for the bridesmaids and then switch to a different one for the bride, and others don’t. Some people print programs that contradict what they asked for in the first place, leaving everyone unsure of what to do.

If this sounds like a pain, it is. On top of it all, there are always curve balls:

The ringbearer stops halfway down the aisle and cries.

The nervous bridesmaids sprint like there’s a fire, laying waste to good timing.

The bride hesitates.

The biggest problem for the organist is being able to see all this happen, as church organs tend to be buried, mercifully, in lofts and around corners, or behind a pillar. The musician shall not be seen. As an introvert, I’m fine with that. But then I can’t see anything else. So there I am squinting into a mirror trying to watch a procession that might as well be a half block away, and I’m trying to coordinate the right cadences with other musicians.

St. Patrick's church

The cavernous St. Patrick’s Church near Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, where I recently played a wedding that was the impetus for this essay.

 

But not just any old cadence will do. In much of the traditional wedding repertoire, there are cadences on the dominant rather than the tonic, which would make the song sound “not done yet,” which is no way to leave a bride at the altar, unless you want to play a prank in very bad taste.

The most consistent thing about a wedding processional is that it never goes as planned. I recently did a wedding with a trumpet player, and to make matters more interesting, we were doing a very nice but uncommon piece of music. Not exactly hard, but we couldn’t take our eyes off the music much, either.

WE had a game plan set up, but of course we were in the middle of no man’s land in the piece when we suddenly realized the bride was only a few steps from the altar. This left us to rely on ESP, for lack of a better word. In these kinds of moments, you are literally listening for what the next note is that the trumpet plays, and then you guess (!) which measure to jump to. One time I had a trumpet player suddenly jump back to the main theme of a piece. I caught up, eventually. I couldn’t blame him.

Needless to say, these performances are far from perfect. I guess the good news is that people rarely seem to notice, though that’s no excuse to be sloppy.
In such circumstances a perfectionist will go nuts. It’s a totally different world playing for a chaotic wedding versus playing under the red pen of a professor or a critic. Conservatories prepare musicians for exams, but not for life. Weddings are one area in which I felt the sting of this difference.

But I’m grateful for the baptism by fire, such as it is. “Perfection is death,” a friend of mine says. A perfectionist will get eaten alive playing a wedding. The good news, though, is that he’ll also get shaken up a bit and learn to play fast and loose, to dive in and make the best of it. This can only improve overall musicianship, reduce nerves, and induce a higher state of flow.

When I first started out I had some very bad weddings, even embarrassing ones, but because of the challenges they contain, I learned to let go and play with joy, and that has carried over into all the playing that I do.

Saxophone Riff

I ran into an old friend, Mark Brown, a few weeks ago who plays the saxophone, and I  explained what I’ve been up to in my studio, mixing field recordings into soundtracks and such. He gave me permission to record him. It took me awhile to figure out how to cut this up into something that worked, but this weekend I sat down at the D.A.W. in the right frame of mind, and it all came together. This is what I ended up with.

 

I’ve also taken footage of a bird singing and faced similar problems in terms of how to mix it so that it works musically. This saxophone track was good practice for that one, and now I feel like I might be ready to take another look at the mockingbird and see if it can be made into something sensible. The main problem has been too much footage and sifting through it. Sometimes fewer resources are easier to deal with.