the orchestra world

stuff musicians go through

In his brilliant, informative, and almost always entertaining blog, the pianist Jeremy Denk talks about the mundane details of practicing, and what we musicians do to either make ourselves do it or do when we just don’t feel like it. Here are three seminal paragraphs:

I played them several times; wrote in fingerings (soon to be corrected, changed); tried to connect my brain more definitely to the tips of my fingers; contemplated the shaping and timing of the turn; and then–shamelessly–skipped to the coda. I am only human! I admit sometimes I just want to skip to the “good parts.” As much as I wish I could, I do not always enjoy every piece equally at every moment; I have weaknesses for certain moments and I build my conceptions around them, toward them. But, I tell myself, Beethoven must have built his conception towards this coda too. How could he not? I often enjoy thinking about the pride composers must have felt at having written certain passages; even they were pleased, even their impossible standards were met.

As I played the coda, I felt guilty. Not for skipping to it; but because I needed to accomplish “something useful” before I gave myself this searing pleasure. In a flash, I recalled my former teacher, Gyorgy Sebok, impeccably dressed–having parked, as always, illegally in the loading zone–walking into a lesson I had with him, saying that he had just vacuumed the house, and that it made him “feel useful.” He smiled his European, utterly cultured smile, which commented ironically all at once on the vacuum, on himself vacuuming, and on the very idea of usefulness. The incomparable guru finding himself useless, sucking up dust.

So, I tore myself away from the piano and I hauled the Hoover out of the closet and cursed its non-retractable cord and cursed the astonishingly outdated electrical systems of my building, and cursed the red carpet I put in the piano room, which seems to put an exclamation point on every morsel of dirt it collects…. and thus cursing, I did a serviceable job. With the unpleasant Hoover smell lingering in my nostrils, making me want to cough, I removed my coat and sat down at the piano, calmed by the carpet’s clarity. Now I took on the coda in earnest. This slow movement is a difficult, painstaking narrative, in that we have to follow (Beethoven unravels) the same long thread twice: he makes us re-experience the same sequence of events with only a small modification the second go-around. It tests our patience, or at least it tests mine.

It’s a great description of what we go through. I often will choose to balance my checkbook upon opening my viola case – then after having done that (and often depressed by the resulting balance), I can really dig in to the work that needs to be done. The best part of what Jeremy writes about is the fact that we often are impatient – we want to just learn the piece(s) miraculously, without all the agonizing and failures that accompany a thorough practice session.

One reason that musicians (at least many of them) are neurotic is that we fail every single day. We fail when we don’t practice, we fail when we don’t practice enough, we fail when we don’t play something the way it sounds in our inner ear, and we fail when we pracice too long past our effective limits and either burn out mentally or injur ourselves. Singers have coaches that they work with on new repertoire, athletes too. Instrumentalists, however, often work in their own private bubble, with an occasional session of playing for a friend or a former teacher once or twice a year at most.

Musicians rely upon themselves for almost everything – their livelihood, their inspiration, their motivation – it’s no wonder that we’re a bit screwed up sometimes. Next time you look into an orchestra and wonder why the musicians (perhaps not all of them) are not smiling as they play, remember where they came from.

the orchestra world

new and/or unfamiliar – fear and hostility – why?

I was looking at the Oregon Symphony’s Web site the other day, and noticed a section which allowed patrons to post reviews of concerts (presumably those reviews which are published are only the positive ones). Here is part of a letter which caught my eye:

One thing I enjoyed also was the lack of modernistic atonal music. I guess it is necessary to play that but perhaps it ought to be another series like “pops” for people who enjoy it.

I’ve long been puzzled by the disinterest or downright hostility towards new and/or unfamiliar music. I understand that the patron pays good money to see a concert, and they don’t want to hear something which they don’t enjoy, but does the concert hall necessarily need to be a museum? In addition, don’t we also pay good money to see things which are not necessarily pleasant, such as the war photography of James Nachtwey, or Spielberg’s Schindler’s List? As a further question, don’t our ears “evolve” as we listen to a wider variety of music, so that something which seems fearsomely complex and incoherent can, after exposure to other similar works, begin to seem familiar and interesting? I quote the following review of a contemporary composer of some renown:

All impartial musicians and music lovers were in perfect agreement that never was anything as incoherent, shrill, chaotic and ear-splitting produced in music. The most piercing dissonances clash in a really atrocious harmony, and a few puny ideas only increase the disagreeable and deafening effect.

The composer? Ludwig van Beethoven. The piece? The most-agreeable Overture to Fidelio. The point is, to many of his time, Beethoven was incomprehensible noise. Knowledgeable patrons and critics continued to produce concerts and give favorable reviews, and over time his work gained greater favor. My point here is that symphony orchestras, as an essential part of their mission, need to promote and disseminate new music, or music which is worthy but not widely known. To not do so is a disservice to the communities they serve, and the greater good of Art.

I am thankful that people such as the patron who wrote to the Symphony’s Website care enough to buy tickets season after season, and that they are so passionate about what they hear and see that they write in to the management, music director, and even individual musicians. We are lucky in Portland to have such devoted followers. All I ask is that audiences listen with open ears, read the program notes before the performances of unfamiliar works, and come to concerts expecting the new and unusual as well as the familiar warhorses. Perhaps, in the not-so-distant future, audiences might come in greater numbers for these new “classics”.

urban rhythms coffeehouse

UPDATE 2: I’ve decided, after some thought on the matter, to disable commenting for this post.  Everyone’s said their piece (and then some) and this is not a blog about an ugly business dispute.