Love Came Down at Christmas

Music is something beyond rhythm and pitch. It is beyond any written notation, no matter the style – or even if it is written at all! The notes, the chords, even the instrumentation are just a medium, an avenue for communicating the message which is transcendent. We must listen beyond, much like we must read between the lines of a poem. Like the notes in music, the words of a poem are only a vessel for the message. Well-placed syllables and vowel sounds, the use of alliteration and onomatopoeia, and various other poetic devices are not the meaning in themselves. They only direct the reader to the meaning.

Back in September and October, I was in quite a slump and did not compose at all. One day in early November, I was contacted by a woman I only knew through Facebook, a friend of a friend, asking if I had any pieces suitable for Advent or Christmas. She was looking for something new to sing for her church’s Christmas Eve service, instead of rehashing the same old standards. At that point I didn’t have such a piece, so I decided to write one for her. I did not want any money for it because I was writing this for my own benefit. It wasn’t just about the wisdom of having such a piece in my portfolio; it was also about my need to get back to composing regularly after about two months of stagnation. The encouragement of being told my work was desired was enough reward and something I needed more than payment at that time. (She and her fellow performers were also willing to give me a copy of their recording, which is very helpful.)

I asked if she had a text in mind.

Finding the right text is the most difficult, and most important, part of writing a vocal piece. I am very picky about the text. The flow of the words, whether syllables are more open or closed, the rhythm of each line, and the pattern of rhyme (if there is one) all contribute to whether or not I will take on the challenge of setting a text.

She suggested “Love Came Down at Christmas” by Christina Rossetti:

Love Came Down at Christmas

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead,
Love incarnate, love divine;
Worship we our Jesus:
But wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token,
Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and to all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.

I’ve got to be honest that, while I enjoy much of Christina Rossetti’s work, this poem is not one of my favorites. The mouthfeel just doesn’t work for me. The changes in the shape of the syllables from line to line seem abrupt and rather square. I don’t like square; I like round. The syllables are short, the words are short, the lines are short, the stanzas are short, and the entire poem is just three stanzas! It takes about twenty seconds to recite the poem out loud, with pauses. It’s impossible to stretch it out further by reading each word slowly. Try it! It sounds silly. It also seems to me to be “unfinished.” I get to the end of the poem and feel a bit like I was left hanging. Is that it? I would not normally have chosen this text myself, but since I did not have the emotional energy to go find one I liked, I accepted the challenge.

One piece of compositional advice I have heard is that a good estimate for the amount of time it will take to set the text in music is about three times the length of reciting the poem. For this poem, that would be about one minute. Adding in accompaniment, I knew I could stretch it out to about one and a half minutes, but this still was not sufficient. I knew immediately I was going to have to do something to change up this text.

When I first began working on the piece, I was unhappy with the sound of it. I was writing for a church service and using a very popular poem, so I wanted to keep the music relatively approachable for the average listener. Yet, I wanted it to be more like a classical-style art song than a popular-style common in much of Contemporary Christian worship music. My piece was heading in the direction I didn’t want.

As I discussed the issue I was having with my twenty-year-old daughter, she encouraged me to try and figure out what the poem was really about. In a “Duh!” moment, I realized I had skipped some very important steps before beginning to write the music. Normally, I jot down words that capture the feelings and ideas that I hope to communicate through the music. I do this for all pieces, vocal or instrumental. But this time, I had forgotten to take the time to do this. I had forgotten to read between the lines of Christina Rossetti’s poem. The words were just a frame. What was she really communicating? So, I went back and spent more time with the poem and wrote down some thoughts.

There’s a difference between setting text and setting context.

I am reminded of the words of one of my English teachers admonishing my class of young writers: “show, don’t tell.” That’s my job as a composer: show, don’t tell. Simply setting text without trying to capture the substance behind the words is simply “telling” or “reciting.” I need to use musical devices to help bring listeners on a journey to encounter the transcendent meaning for themselves.

Christina Rossetti’s works are in public domain; I do not need to get permission to make changes. So I did. Musically, I stretched out the words and made the single-syllable word “love” last an entire measure in some places. I repeated words and parts of phrases. I rearranged the lines of the first stanza so I could make the musical ideas more cohesive.I made the first stanza into it’s own musical section. I combined stanzas two and three into one section because the third stanza answers the question that ends the second stanza, and in my mind, there was interior rhythmic consistency that brought them together. I then repeated the first stanza/section again to address the unfinished feeling I got from reading the poem and to reiterate the answer to the question of “why?” inherent in the second and third stanzas. All in all, I made this short, pithy poem last four-and-a-half minutes.

Earlier this week, I made the mistake of listening to other settings of this text. I did so in response to a strong sense that I needed to modify my own piece slightly, which I wrote about in “When Music Wakes You at 4am.” I came away feeling insecure. I complained to my husband that my setting, comparatively, seemed to come out of left field. “It’s just so different. All these other settings are so pretty and in major and mine is in minor and, well, it’s just so angsty.” He responded, “Of course it’s angsty. It’s 2020. Times are tough, and you’re a product of your time. The angst of these days is going to show up in your work.” Each artist interacts with their sources differently due to different personalities and experiences. My own self, mingled with the uneasiness of 2020, influenced how I interacted with the meaning in the poem and combined to create the meaning in the piece.

The idea of a poem or a piece of music being only the container for a message relates very much to the Christmas story of Jesus Christ, the Son of God come in the flesh. The body was the container – one that we, as humans, can recognize and interact with, much like how poets use words that we understand or composers use notes we can hear and comprehend. But Jesus was much more than an ordinary person; he was God, incarnate. The acts he did in the body – the way he lived, taught, performed miracles, died, and rose again – all those things point to something much greater: the message that mankind can be at peace in relationship with God and each other, the message that Love came down at Christmas. In becoming a person, Jesus didn’t just communicate God’s love for the world; he also experienced life from a human perspective and became familiar with our suffering. During this topsy-turvy year full of illness, death, unrest, injustice, distress, chaos, and uncertainty all around us, the Incarnation takes on even more significance, at least for me.

So, I present my setting of “Love Came Down at Christmas”, by Christina Rossetti, written during November 2020 and premiered by Michelle Marinelli Prindle, soprano, Dan Prindle, cello, and David Kidwell, piano. In these times, they needed to make a recording for their church’s virtual Christmas Eve service, and they chose to do so by recording individually and then making a video. This creates challenges that don’t exist in a live situation where everyone is performing together in one place! The piece and the recording, both, are a reflection of our time. I am grateful for their beautiful performance, hard work, and willingness to perform this piece. I hope you enjoy it and that it contributes to a deeper understanding of the words “Love Came Down at Christmas.”

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A professional recording of my piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, is now available. It can be found here.

When Music Wakes You at 4am

Sometimes I can’t sleep for the music swirling in my head. Despite my body happily resting, my mind is a whir, playing and replaying pieces. Not even whole pieces. Segments of pieces. One line. One phrase. Over and over. This commonly happens when I’m in the middle of a musical production. One season, Charlie Brown and Linus just would not leave me alone!

I have heard that some composers dream up new compositions. I usually only dream of compositions already written. If it’s someone else’s piece, I can continue to “sleep”, somehow resting despite the conscious awareness that my mind’s playlist is on repeat. I often have my own pieces churning in my head for days or even weeks after finishing them, my mind still digesting the work. It’s annoying, but I can deal with it.

When I’m in the middle of composing a piece, I relish the fact that my mind works on it while I am sleeping. Sometimes I wake up with solutions to a problem I’ve been trying to solve, or I wake up with ideas for a new direction. In fact, I often look over my work right before bed to give my subconscious something to do. It’s a way of making good use of my natural tendency to overthink.

But this week, I had a different experience. I had recently finished an art song for a virtual Christmas Eve Mass and even turned it in to my performers a few weeks ago. Yet, I woke up at 4am with the intense feeling that it needed fixing. This one I couldn’t shake off. I was too stressed out to fall back asleep and got out of bed. I spent part of that day listening again to my own piece, as well as a couple of other settings of the same text I had used, trying to figure out what about the piece was bugging me, and if it was worth the effort of making any changes. After all, Christmas Eve was one week away (yikes!) Did I really want to inconvenience the performers, who were making a recording (in other words, it involved more time and effort and starting work on the project sooner) on such short notice?

I didn’t act on my feelings that day.

But like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, who ignored the warnings of the first ghost, I was visited again in my sleep by the nagging sensation that I needed to FIX MY PIECE – the dang piano part! Two measures needed a little more movement to push into the following measures, and I needed to make the notation in another measure clearer. Minor changes, but still…

The anxiety of making these last-minute changes spawned more thoughts: My performers are giving me a recording. I’m going to try to sell this score. Don’t I want the recording people will hear to match the changes I know I need to make in the score? What if this is my only shot at a good recording? Time is ticking away. The longer I wait, the more I will inconvenience the performers. But these are minor changes. Surely they won’t mind. But what if they have already recorded? I don’t want to put them out and make them re-record. After all, this is for their church service and I’m getting a copy of the recording for free. I don’t want to be a pest.

Once again I got myself out of bed at 4am, unable to fall back asleep. It took me all day (until about 8PM) to gather up the courage to contact my performers, ask politely if they could possibly accommodate the very minor changes, and send the updated score. At that moment, I was very, very grateful for digital technology! All turned out well, and they agreed to the changes.

Now I know that if I am wakened at 4am by thoughts that plague me about alterations I need to make to a piece that I thought was already finished, I just might have to listen the first time, especially if I already have people lined up to perform the piece. It is not worth waiting, because I will only be haunted again the next night, and perhaps every night, until I obey the spirit.

Resolving this issue has brought great relief, and I slept much better last night. Now I eagerly await the recording. I am very excited to hear my piece performed by real musicians instead of the computerized mock-up. Stay tuned! I will release “Love Came Down at Christmas”, my setting of Christina Rossetti’s poem, as well as more thoughts on the compositional process, on Christmas Day.

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Proprioception, Peripheral Vision, and Playing the Piano

When I was a child, my mother often would often say to me, “Lift up your feet when you walk!” or, “Pay attention! Look where you’re going!” I’ve never had great proprioception. I veered while I walked until I was dating my now-husband and learned to not run him off the sidewalk when we walked together. I am still very clumsy and hit my head while getting into the car, walk into the corners of furniture, bang my hands against the doorknobs while walking down the hall, and spill, drop, and knock things over almost daily. While it is not debilitating, this somewhat diminished sense of my body in space can be an aggravation.

Interestingly, I don’t have this issue at the piano. Perhaps it is because I have spent more time sitting in one spot at the piano than I have in any other singular space? Perhaps it is because piano practice involves more focused attention and detailed training? I’m not sure. But when it comes to the piano, I always know where my fingers are. When sitting in a normal position at the piano, I can find all the octaves of the piano, without looking, based on the feel of the distance between my elbow and my waist and the angle of my arm and shoulder. From there, I can find all the individual notes based on the span between my fingers.

All musicians use some sort of proprioception to play their instruments. The way their hands are shaped, their arms are held, the location of their feet and knees, or the angle of their torsos all affect what note or sound is produced. But piano is still a little different because, unlike many other instruments, there are not multiple options to play at least some of the notes. There is only one Middle C. There is also only one key for playing every single other pitch. All eighty-eight of them. The keyboard is large; any note can be played by any finger, right or left hand, depending on the music. Sometimes I must lean my entire body towards the uppermost part of the keyboard; less often, I must lean my entire body towards the lowermost part of the keyboard.

When I play my saxophone, I can’t look at my fingers and see where to place them. This is true for many instruments. However, while the keyboard is in front of me, that doesn’t mean I get to look at my hands unless I have the piece memorized. Moving my head up and down too much while reading music increases the chances that I will lose my place on the paper. Imagine if you had to keep turning away from a book and then find the exact word you were on when you turn your eyes back. It’s like that, except I’m also moving my hands and fingers at the same time, trying to maintain a continuity of music.

Being able to read a piece of music quickly without looking at one’s hands is a necessary component of sight-reading piano music. My first official piano teacher began teaching me how to do that when I was about six years old. She would put music in front of me to play for the first time, and I was not allowed to look at my hands. She made me rely on sensing the location of the piano keys. I got started very early on with becoming intimately familiar with the the piano keyboard.

My use of proprioception at the piano doesn’t mean I don’t use my eyes. I didn’t really understand how much I actually do “look” at the piano keyboard while I play until the COVID-19 pandemic began and I started to use a mask while playing the piano at church. All of a sudden, I couldn’t see my hands while playing! I thought I didn’t look at them, but it turns out I do – using peripheral vision. I had previously associated peripheral vision with the corners of my eyes, but apparently I use downward peripheral vision as well. Now, that is blocked by a mask. I got around it. Since I was playing familiar hymns that didn’t require a lot of fast movement across the keyboard, I could rely 100% on proprioception.

My new bifocals have caused greater problems. The eye doctor gave me the option of getting two pairs of glasses – one for distance, and one for reading – or bifocals; I opted for the bifocals. I figured I could get used to them without much trouble. For regular reading, they work great. They cause difficulty when reading music at the piano.

I know other musicians who read music with bifocals, but they are not pianists. They can adjust their head or their stand a little bit to accommodate the necessary angle required by the bifocals. I can’t. I must look at the piano music straight-on at eye level. While wearing bifocals, that causes me to look through the distance portion of the lens, which makes the music even smaller, or straight through the line that divides the lens, which makes everything blurry. When I tilt my head back slightly to read the music through the bottom portion of my bifocals, all my peripheral vision of the keyboard is gone. I can’t see any of the keys to the left or right out of the corner of my eyes; I can’t even see the mask!

I can get away with using proprioception alone when playing music that doesn’t require too much movement up and down the keyboard. But, when playing something that is all over the keyboard, I rely heavily on my peripheral vision to anticipate where my fingers will land. Wearing bifocals has forced me to move my head when playing more complicated pieces. Moving my head more has meant I’ve had to find my place in the music when looking back at it – except now I experience wavy lines of music, a second of blurriness from the line dead-center in the lens and a moment of adjusting as I tilt my head up once again. I can take my mask off when I’m practicing, unlike playing at church. But I can’t take off my glasses if I’m going to be able to read the music.

(If you’re a pianist and you need reading glasses, learn from me. Perhaps bifocals will be suitable for most activities, but separate reading glasses for the piano are a must.)

I used to think I relied solely on proprioception when playing the piano, but the changes in my fields of vision over the last few months have made me aware of how much I do depend on my eyes. If I had enough time to learn a piece and was more skilled in memorizing, I might be able to get away with using proprioception alone. However, my work as a collaborative pianist, and the speed at which I need to learn new music, necessitates the use of peripheral vision which enables me to simultaneously look at the music and guide my hands across the keyboard even when I am not looking directly at them, in addition to being able to look at a conductor or other musicians for cues. Proprioception and peripheral vision are both important aspects of playing the piano.

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Is Classical Music Elitist? Part Three

This post is a continuation of “Is Classical Music Elitist?”. To see my introduction and read Part 1, click here. To read Part 2, click here.

Part Three

In this post, I am not discussing the appreciation of classical music, but the participation in classical music as a performer.

Classical music, in any culture, is a high art, which sets it apart from other forms of music such as folk music or popular music. Classical music is not the only type of music to be a high art. I would argue that some jazz is, but not all. However, pretty much all classical music would be considered high art.

I hate the term high art. It implies that a high art is higher, and thus superior to, another form of art. I don’t agree with this sentiment. I believe all types of art are very valuable, and they all have their place in a culture.

However, the descriptor “high” is not used for only art. In mathematics, for example, higher mathematics are “of more advanced content than ordinary arithmetic and algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and beginning calculus” according to Merriam-Webster (italics are mine.) While we might call these “lower” mathematics ordinary, that doesn’t make them less important at all! In fact, most of us use arithmetic, basic algebra, and basic geometry on a regular basis, if not daily! I personally occasionally use Algebra II concepts, though not formulas, in my approach to musical composition, and my basic understanding of Calculus certainly helps when I am reading up on pitch temperament and the overtone series.

Ordinary math is common to most people. Higher math is reserved for specialists. The same is true for classical music. Folk and popular music are, by definition, common. Classical music is reserved for specialists. It is not common.

One could say it is “elitist” because it is out of reach and inaccessible to many. Following this argument, many things are “elitist.” Working for NASA is elitist. Medical school is elitist. Becoming a full-time professor is elitist. These things are not open to everyone.

That’s not a problem.

Most people I know hate math and do not complain that they don’t pursue higher math. Most people I know do not wish they had gone to medical school and put in the grueling hours demanded of interns. They know the effort and money it takes and said “not for me.” It takes a tremendous amount of time, effort and money to complete a PhD, then endure the hoop-jumping required for gaining tenure, to become a full-time professor. Many quit along the way.

Playing classical music professionally is elitist. And it should be.

The competition is fierce, and the music is artistically and technically extremely demanding. Classical music, at least in the Western tradition, demands surgical precision. Those who pass auditions and make it into professional ensembles have paid their dues, in years of diligent practice and thousands of dollars invested in training and instruments, and are worth every penny they make, and more. The more the number of professional ensembles is reduced, the more intense the competition, the more elitist the field becomes.

One cannot become a classical musician simply by listening to a recording and copying what is heard, outside of the very rare prodigy. A teacher is necessary. A teacher will correct posture, hand positions, pitch, technique, and so on. A teacher will explain and demonstrate musical interpretation. A teacher will guide students to appropriate opportunities for musical growth outside of lessons.

The access to quality teachers is where the problem of elitism in classical music resides.

Schools don’t prevent students from ever working for NASA or from becoming doctors or professors by cutting academic studies in elementary and middle school. Yet, while public schools are required to provide instruction in academic disciplines without extra expense on the part of students, music programs in many districts are cut, even in comparatively well-to-do suburban towns! Even in the districts where musical instruction is provided, beginning students who wish to learn to play an instrument must provide their own instruments. Later, as students advance, they will require study with private teachers who specialize in an instrument if they are to continue to progress. This automatically reserves musical instruction for those who can afford it. It is not simply an issue of talent or desire. I would argue that most people have innate musical ability that has never been tapped into and developed. Sometimes that is due to a lack of interest, but for many that is due to a lack of opportunities stemming from a lack of resources.

It’s not wrong for the professional field of classical music to be elitist. It is wrong to make the study of classical music elitist from the start.

A great number of classical musicians – those who I know personally or who I have read about – know they are privileged. They have either come from families that have had the resources to provide the training and materials they needed to achieve high levels of performance; or, they have been blessed with generous benefactors who have, directly or indirectly, assisted them through inexpensive or free lessons, purchasing or loaning quality instruments, providing scholarships to schools or music festivals, and so forth. Many classical musicians also seek to find ways to help younger musicians through these financial hurdles. Some have started foundations; some provide free or reduced-cost lessons themselves; some volunteer with educational programs for underprivileged students. I, myself, have taken action to provide low-cost instruction to many students.

My own children would not have had a quality music education themselves without programs like these. As much as I could teach them piano and theory, they needed specialists for their instruments. They both benefited from financial aid and scholarships, and for three years my son participated in the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, which was absolutely free, run only on donations. They were both loaned equipment and given quality instruments.

I will tell you a fact: it is not classical musicians who are keeping classical music elitist.

Rather, it’s the people who put up with eliminating music programs from the public school budget. It’s the people who say that studying music is not as valuable as studying math. It’s the people who say “studying music is not for me or my children; it is for the elites.” It’s the people who do not invest in the arts themselves, by attending classical music concerts or supporting musicians, ensembles, or organizations through donations. They are the ones who have decided that classical music should be reserved only for the elites.

I think it safe to assume that most classical musicians would prefer for classical music to be less elite. We would all like to have more ensembles, more performances, and a larger audience. We would all like to have more students and more support from the public. We would like more people to participate.

We can’t change the music; classical music is demanding and difficult, and those who perform it professional are, indeed, elite musicians. But we can change the culture surrounding classical music education. We just can’t do it alone.

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Is Classical Music Elitist? Part Two

This post is a continuation of “Is Classical Music Elitist?”. To see my introduction and read Part 1, click here.

Part Two

Let’s talk about names.

One of the recent controversies to hit the news regarding classical music is in regard to how we name composers in concert programs and wherever else classical composers are discussed. In this article in Slate, Chris White, an assistant professor of Music Theory at UMass Amherst, makes the claim that leaving out the first names of well-known composers while providing the full names of lesser-known composers is racist and sexist, and thus elitist. Daniel Lelchuck, Assistant Principal Cellist in the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra and host of the Talking Beats podcast, says “insisting on full names for everyone seem a little pretentious, annoying, tedious, and dare I say . . . elitist?” You can read his comments in The Bulwark here and in Quillete here.

As I said in my previous post regarding the elitism associated with classical music, I do not believe the music itself is elitist. However, I do think the culture surrounding classical music has been. On this particular point regarding composers’ names, I’m going to have to agree with Chris White. In concert programs, reviews, and other public discussions of discussions, full names should be used for all composers. However, I do not come to this conclusion for the same reasons.

I don’t believe that incorporating first names is an issue of racism or sexism towards lesser-known composers. While all the “big name” composers of the past were, as far as I know, white men, using their surnames alone does not preclude other composers from being part of the program. Yes, many lesser-known composers now performed are women or persons of color, but those “full names” listed on the program do also sometimes belong to white men. The issue of full-naming is not one of racism or sexism.

However, I believe it is one of elitism. When we provide only the surname of well-known composers, we are indirectly communicating that these composers are the “pillars” of classical music. They are the ones that deserve the most attention. They are big, they are powerful, they are the models to be emulated and provide the framework on which everything else is hung. All other composers are “lesser” – not just lesser-known, but lesser quality, lesser value, an afterthought. (This is further communicated when the work of the “big names”, so big as to only need a last name, takes up most of a concert program.)

Using only the surname of some composers makes classical music appear elitist to the general public. As I said before, my work brings me mostly into contact with music-loving amateurs who participate in community music. Some of them are classical-music aficionados, but many are not. My parents, who obviously raised a classically-trained musician, may know the first names of Beethoven and Mozart* (and that’s a stretch.) They certainly don’t know the first names of Mendelssohn, Brahms, Bartok*, or a host of other composers who may have only a surname provided in a concert program. I know people who love to sing who likely do not even know that the sole name provided is a surname!

What does providing only a surname for the “well-known” composers communicate to the general public? Does it communicate that only people who already know these names belong at the concert? Elitist. Does it communicate that if audience members do not know all these names already that they are uncouth, uncultured ignoramuses? Elitist.

I’ve experienced “elitism” from the other end of the spectrum. In elementary school, I was “quizzed” everyday by my classmates who teased me for not being able to name more than one or two popular bands or hit songs of the time. They let me know I was weird and didn’t belong. I am still not up-to-date with popular music. Sure, I know a few famous names, but my knowledge has a limit.

Elitism is about being in an exclusive club. Too often, classical music concerts require that audience members already have a baseline level of knowledge in order to attend and get the most out of a concert. Even program notes are often obnoxiously heady.

In a day when knowledge and appreciation of classical music is waning and audience size is diminishing, it behooves performance ensembles, and anyone who writes or speaks about classical music, to make the connection to the music and the composers who wrote it easier for audience members, especially those who are new to classical music. No, the music itself is not elitist. It can move anyone. But, yes, the culture surrounding it has been elitist. It’s time that classical music was more accessible to more people. I find it very sad that the Filipino hotel worker Daniel Lelchuk mentions in his article had never previously had the opportunity to hear classical music. Could that be because of the elitist culture surrounding it?

Starting with using full names for every composer is an easy first step. Frankly, there is no good reason not to take this step. Dates and country of origin should also be given for every composer in the program notes. I understand that some performance ensembles are already doing these things – and kudos to them if they are.

There is one danger, however. In providing full names, dates, and country of origin for every composer in a program, the audience will quickly catch on that, in concert after concert, especially for orchestral music, 75% or more of each program is music written by long-dead, European, white males. The audience may tire of this and start demanding something else.

*Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang (how he is commonly known) Mozart, Felix Mendelssohn (as opposed to Fanny, his sister, who must be given a full name), Johannes Brahms, Bela Bartok

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Is Classical Music Elitist? Part One

I have been very happy to see articles about classical music show up recently in publications that appeal to more readers than the small subculture of arts aficionados. A couple of months ago, I responded to news reports about the controversy regarding music theory and analysis covered by news outlets such as the Dallas Observer, National Review, and NPR. (See “Is Music Theory Racist?”) In this series of posts, I am responding to articles I have seen show up in such diverse publications as Slate, Vox, and The Bulwark which make the claim that classical music is, or is not, elitist. (Links are to articles relevant to this discussion.)

I want to point out that all the links above are to opinion pieces. And, likewise, what I present below is my personal opinion, based on my first-hand experience. However, I believe that my personal experience provides a unique perspective. Unlike many classical musicians, I am not purely trained in classical music. My training spans classical, jazz, and musical theater, and my professional work does not primarily involve other classical musicians; I mainly work in a community setting, with music-loving amateurs. My perspective comes from both my education and my work.

In short, my answer to the question, “Is classical music elitist?” is: yes and no. Elitism has to do with restricting access to certain people. Classical music is not inherently elitist, but the culture surrounding it has been. Does it have to be? Absolutely not!

Part 1

I’ve been playing the piano since I was three years old, which now brings me to over forty years of playing. Until I was thirteen, I had a strictly classical training; at that point, I got sick of it and switched over to jazz. At the point that I “quit” classical piano, I was playing advanced high-school/early college-level Beethoven and Mozart sonatas, as well as some of the more challenging Chopin waltzes. The first time I played a classical piano solo written by a woman was, oh, about two weeks ago.

I’ve been working on an educational project about musical form, for which I’ve been selecting some public-domain piano pieces to prepare and perform. The upcoming video is on the minuet and trio/scherzo and trio form. As I began to prepare this project, I pulled my handy collections of piano sonatas off the shelf, leafed through and found a few pieces. I quickly chose something by Haydn and something by Beethoven. As I prepared them, I began to feel that these two pieces were not enough. I needed something newer. As I began to seriously look for something unfamiliar to me, I hoped to be able to find a suitable piece written by a woman or a person of color. It also had to be in the public domain!

That’s hard to find, and part of the reason is that website searches are not set up for such criteria. Of course, I made use of the International Music Score Library Project. However, while I could search “Minuet” and “Scherzo” for solo piano, all I got for search results was a list of pieces with the last names of the composers. The listings did not include the composer’s date of birth, gender, or race. It would take me a very long time to research each composer in the list to find out that information! The best I could do was scan the list and see if there was any last name I recognized as belonging to a female. I found a piece: a Minuet by Cecile Chaminade. I was lucky I knew who she was, and that was only because I have attended a performance of her flute concertino. Otherwise, her name would also have been unknown to me.

When I printed out the piece and started practicing it, I started asking myself why I hadn’t been introduced to this piece earlier in my life. Why, as a young, relatively accomplished pianist – a female pianist at that – was I not introduced to the piano works of female composers? This piece by Chaminade is no more or less challenging or interesting than the Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin I was learning at age thirteen! It’s a super fun piece! (See this link for a description of the unfair criticism she faced as a female composer.) How much more motivation would I have had to continue in classical piano studies if I had had access to this work?

The author of the opinion piece in The Bulwark claims that classical music is not elitist because anyone, regardless of background, can be moved by classical music. Listening to and appreciating classical music does not require a certain education or cultural sensitivity. I do believe that is true; I think anyone with an open mind can appreciate classical music. But elitism is not about the music itself; it is about access. And access to classical music, and within the realm of classical music, has been cut-off to certain groups for quite some time, intentionally or not.

In high school, when I chose pieces to prepare for the state Solo-Ensemble Competition, I looked through the big, blue New York State School Music Association book of graded repertoire, listed according to instrumentation and difficulty. When I turned to the piano section, I came across the same standard last names: Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, even Gershwin. To my knowledge, no female composer was listed there. Back in those days, before the internet, it wasn’t easy to search uncommon names. The local library didn’t have it’s own copy of the New Grove Dictionary of Music.

Do musical girls need role models of female composers? Do students of color need role models of composers of color? That’s a resounding YES!

The fact that female composers (as well as composers of color) have been historically left out of the educational repertoire IS elitist. Those lists communicate who is, and is not, considered part of the club of legitimate composers. These things are beginning to change, thankfully, as more of the committees who design these repertoire lists actively attempt to include minority composers. But people like me, who grew up before this was considered important, have to work extra hard to intensively search for such material.

Let’s change things.

Let’s publish more music written by female composers and composers of color (I’m assigning myself a project here.) Let’s increase the amount of information provided about composers in searches (are you listening, IMSLP?) Let’s add more pieces composed by females and persons of color in the repertoire lists (and, yes, include the first names so we have a better idea of gender and race!) Let’s start appreciating the different qualities these unique perspectives bring to classical music. All these things increase the flow and accessibility of classical music, from composer to performer to audience.

Has classical music been elitist? YES. Does it have to be? NO!

(By the way, as I was creating the links for this post, the capitals I put on Cecile Chaminade’s name were automatically undone and when leaving out the capitals for Mozart and Beethoven, they were automatically put in!)

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Hello, Piano, My Old Friend

I haven’t done any composing since the first week of September. That puts me at about seven weeks of not putting pencil to paper, the longest stretch I’ve gone without composing in probably five to seven years. It’s not writer’s block; I always have ideas. These last several weeks I’ve lacked the emotional energy to flesh them out.

I am exhausted. We’ve had one week off this year and went camping in New Hampshire; it was a bust and not at all relaxing. My kitchen is still not finished. Covid has shut down my work until who knows when. I haven’t been able to find a part-time job despite applying to many places that I would actually like to work (is the problem that I am overqualified or that they know I will leave once my real work returns?) And personal stuff dredging up thirty years of muck has reared it’s head. I haven’t been this depressed since high school.

So, instead of composing, I’ve been practicing the piano. A lot. Much more than I have in a long time. I’ve been practicing solo piano music. That’s significant, because I usually only practice music I am working on as an accompanist.

I find it much easier to play than compose. I can just open up a book of music and get to it. My sight-reading skills make learning a new piece an almost-instant gratification. Someone else has told me what notes to play when and how; all the decisions have been made, and I’m only responsible for executing. (Of course, executing the most difficult passages requires serious technical skill, so in no way am I disparaging performers.) At the times when I am too worn out to make creative decisions, being able to just play is a balm.

The truth is I’ve been a reluctant pianist. When I was five, I told my parents I would never be a concert pianist despite already playing some basic classical repertoire. I never liked playing by myself and joined the school band as soon as I could. However, I never quit the piano. I studied saxophone in college, but continued piano on the side out of some sense of obligation, knowing that piano is good for musicians, like a health tonic. I kept up my piano skills because I should. It paid off; now I make most of my income through piano: accompanying and teaching. I have long joked that I was married to piano, but saxophone was my mistress. Piano was dependable, but boring, and demanded hard work; the saxophone was fun, had vibrato, and didn’t require nearly the effort.

But the piano has always been there, like a faithful lover waiting for me to come to my senses and truly appreciate it.

Piano was there for me when I was a weird elementary school kid who had no friends calling me up inviting me to play, and I spent much of my afternoons practicing.

Piano was there for me in middle school when I was the lonely new kid in town and lived ten miles from my classmates, too young to drive.

Piano was there for me in high school when I could go practice no matter how badly I was feeling.

Piano was there for me in college, a productive diversion, when I was overwhelmed by my work.

Piano was there for me as my children grew and I taught them that mothers have their own lives and interests; they played in the playpen or learned to quietly amuse themselves while I practiced.

Piano was there for me when my children entered high school and college, giving me an opportunity to earn some money.

And the piano is here for me now, at the ready however and whenever I play it, for work or for pleasure.

Of course, the piano is not a person. It doesn’t feel slighted when ignored; it doesn’t require much attention; it doesn’t have emotional needs; it doesn’t have its own thoughts; the care it needs is minimal and relatively predictable.

And yet, like a friend, it listens to me and responds to my feelings. I play whatever I want, and it empathizes. It helps me process. There is no judgment; the piano isn’t bothered if I play a wrong note or if I play the right note wrongly. I can come angry, happy, sad, or stressed and it helps me relax, refresh, and refocus. The Bible has a verse in it that says the Spirit prays for us when we don’t know what to say (Romans 8:26). Often times, I feel those incommunicable prayers are given voice through the piano keys.

In this trying time, I can depend on my piano – sturdy, patient, and expectant.

So, hello piano, my old friend. I’ve come to talk with you again.

I Vet You

Call me paranoid, if you want, but I’ve had too many experiences with people not being who they present themselves to be. It’s made me a bit suspicious and cautious. That doesn’t mean I’m immune to being duped. It does mean, though, that I will do what I can to check people out from afar.

The internet is a great tool for this. Being married, I’m not in the dating scene. But if I was, I would definitely make use of those sites where I could get access to all sorts of public records relating to things like marriage, divorce, and arrests, for one dollar. As it is, it’s easy to find information like parents, siblings, addresses, and even political party affiliation online for free. I don’t go out of my way to find this stuff; it’s just interesting what comes up when you search a person online. This is information I generally don’t need, and really don’t care about, since I’m usually not trying to find out if someone I know is criminal. (However, I did search my kids’ private music teachers before hiring them, which I think is reasonable.)

I don’t investigate everyone. My inquiries are related to how much I am investing. If someone begs me for money on the street and I have some change, I will give it. What they do with it is their business, but I’m not out much. However, if I was investing in stock, it would behoove me to examine the companies I am investing in.

As a composer and pianist, my personal work – my compositions and the performance opportunities that help build my career – are extremely valuable to me. I am careful about who I work with and where I send my scores. So, what I generally search for is career information. I believe that my default position of not trusting what I see on the surface has protected me from some questionable, and possibly harmful, situations. What do I look for?

The first thing I check is the history of the individual, ensemble, or organization. Everyone has a history, even those just starting out on their career path. If none is presented, I see a red flag.

I come across calls for scores all the time. Some are posted by individuals and ensembles that are just beginning, or are even still students. If they are legit, they explain the situation. I once sent in scores to a woman who was a saxophone student. Her story included where she was attending school, what year she was, and who her teacher was. I could check her facts (and I did.) I didn’t care that she was a student; I just wanted to know she was real. Student ensembles also list the school with which they are associated, and often mention the yearly performance schedule and previous works/composers the ensemble has performed. Most school ensembles also have a proper name.

One time, though, I came across an ensemble with a name of a supposed string quartet (I can’t remember the name), claiming that it was made of “highly skilled players from well known music schools.” Uh, yeah, sure. No names were listed, no schools were listed, no dates of graduation. If I graduated from a well-known music school, that would be information I would want to advertise! A brand-new graduate still has a history! But, to be fair and to consider that perhaps these “youngsters” were just ignorant about how to post a call for scores, I went ahead and searched the internet for this ensemble. I found nothing, and concluded that it was a scam. (As a side note, I can’t imagine anyone knowing enough about calls for scores to set up one to scam composers other than another composer who decided to make money illegitimately.) That particular scam was tempting because it was only $5 to enter. I hope no unwitting composers were taken in by it.

If an ensemble is just starting out, it should say so. Otherwise, I expect a list of concerts with dates, pieces performed, and plenty of video and audio excerpts. Regardless of the history of the ensemble, each member should be listed with a full bio and pic; a link to a personal website would be a nice addition. However, in my opinion, no ensemble should be asking for scores when just starting out. If they want to perform new music, they should go find the composers they know personally to get started. I have to find my own performers; it’s an ensemble’s responsibility to prove their merit by starting with the composers they know to create a resume. I am unlikely to send work to a group that hasn’t done this because it appears to me that they are lazy, don’t know composers, or are unwilling to work with local people, all of which indicate problems.

The second thing I look at is the stated goals of the individual, ensemble, or organization. Here, I do not mean what kind of piece is requested; I am referring to the purpose of asking composers to send in scores. Why do they want new pieces? Why do they want to work with composers of new music? What are they going to do with the pieces? How will these purposes help the composers who send in scores, have their pieces performed, or win a competition? If the answers are not satisfactory, I see a red flag.

One time, I came across a call for scores for a youth orchestra in California. They dared ask composers to not only send in brand-new, unperformed full orchestra pieces that this ensemble would world-premiere, but to pay a twenty-five dollar fee to do so. The ensemble wasn’t offering any prize money and didn’t even promise a recording of the performance. ARE YOU KIDDING ME??? Again, I hope no unwitting composers fell for this. I am not giving a full-orchestra piece (with parts!) to a youth ensemble I’ve never heard of, and no recording for my efforts, to boot! My son played with the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra for a few years. If this group in California is nearly as well-funded and experienced as the BPYO, then prize money and a recording is a more-than-reasonable expectation; if they aren’t, then they shouldn’t be asking to world-premiere a piece.

On the other hand, I have come across publishing companies that explain not only how they will assess submitted scores, but outline their payment amounts and processes to composers, describe their approach to marketing, and provide a sample contract to review. These are the companies that make me feel good about submitting something to an open call for scores.

The final thing I look for is reviews and testimonials. This really is self-explanatory, but still essential. It is that last piece of the puzzle which, if missing, mars the whole picture.

Today I came across a call for scores from a publishing company wanting to put together an anthology of new American art songs. The purpose was explained, musical bios of the publishing team were presented (with pics, no websites), a sample contract was provided, and there is no fee to enter. It all sounded good. So what’s the problem? I couldn’t find anything online about this company except for the website provided in the call for scores. I checked three different search engines (the website listed in the call for scores didn’t even come up!) The problem with the website is that there was no information there except what pertained to this particular project. There were no products for sale. There were no testimonies from composers who had worked with the publisher. It seemed this might be the very first endeavor, like a group of musicians who got together and said, “Hey, here’s a great idea! Let’s make this anthology and lots of singers will buy it!” I have no idea if they have any business acumen, or if they are just musicians. I’m sure they are nice people, but I don’t want to send a score into a dead-end, especially if I sign a contract saying that I will not agree to submit my piece to another publisher until six months after the anthology is published. What if it never gets published? That happened to one of my composition teacher’s friends; his piece ended up in in the realm of lost scores. I didn’t write off the company, but I did ask questions; I am waiting for answers.

I know composers who simply refuse to enter anything that requires a fee, but even then some opportunities are not worth pursuing. I believe my three-fold examination of opportunities provides a full picture and helps me to know if an opportunity might be a good one, even if there are fees attached.

I get vetted all the time, and my work is constantly examined, whether through auditions, interviews, or score submissions. It is a normal part of being a musician. Those who wish to collaborate with me in some way should expect the same and should provide information and benefits that would entice me to work with them. My time and work is too valuable for anything less.

We’re Having a Music Theory Issue in This House

The issue is Ben Shapiro’s definition of music.

I was watching Adam Neely’s video, “Music Theory and White Supremacy” the other day. In his video, which I highly recommend watching, Adam shows a clip of Ben Shapiro making the argument that hip-hop music is not music, because “according to his father who went to music school”, music must contain three elements: melody, harmony, and rhythm. Since rap music doesn’t contain melody (it doesn’t? Not ever?) then it doesn’t qualify as music.

His definition is just plain wrong.

While most of what we call “Western (Euro-American)” music contains all three elements of music, some doesn’t. And it’s not just rap.

Let’s take, for instance, the plainchant used by the early Catholic church. While we could argue that it does have melody, I would challenge any music school graduate to use their ear training to notate it. The melody doesn’t have a lot of movement, and the rhythm is just about indiscernible. As far as harmony is concerned, the earliest chant had none. But I’m going to guess that Ben Shapiro would still classify plainchant as “music.”

Technically, harmony is any two pitches sounding against each other. A mother singing a lullaby to put her baby to sleep is singing a melody. It may have rhythm, but does it have harmony? Is it, then, music? One could argue that melodies have implied harmonies. If that is true, what harmonies are implied? The fact is that a melody could be harmonized many different ways; thus, the harmony is not predetermined by the melody. Arnold Schoenberg even said that music students with a modicum of training in music theory (figured bass and part writing) would have difficulty effectively harmonizing someone else’s melody. (Theory of Harmony, p.14) If that is true, and I believe it is, melody does not dictate harmony, and a melody alone cannot count as two elements of music. So, I ask again: is a mother singing a lullaby alone to her baby making music? This is a rhetorical question – of course it is!

Speaking of Schoenberg, does his music have melody? This is a bit tongue-in-cheek. Some of it does have a distinguishable melody, but his later 12-tone music can be hard to follow, and it definitely does not have a tune one can take home in one’s back pocket. Does that make it not music? Of course not! We can argue about whether or not we like it. We can discuss whether or not it is beautiful. But there is no question that it is music.

The same goes for John Cage who opened the world’s ears to the sounds of the prepared piano. The prepared piano substitutes nicely for certain percussion. Cage’s Sonata No.5 for prepared piano sounds astonishingly similar to a gamelan ensemble; it is rhythmic-based, without a singable tune or identifiable harmony. Again, we can say whether or not we like it, but it is most definitely music.

There are many other classical composers who have not required their music to have all the elements of melody, harmony, and rhythm. But it’s not just Western classical composers whose work doesn’t fit Ben Shapiro’s ignorantly narrow definition of music.

Music from all over the world often lacks one or more of the three elements. Traditional Celtic music is often accompanied by only a drone. Does that qualify as real harmony? I already mentioned gamelan music (this example is Balinese, and as you will hear there are only tiny bits of singable melody.) It is fascinating music, but it is nothing like what most Westerners are used to hearing. Much of African music also is primarily rhythm-based. I have a recording of African women washing clothes in a river. While washing, they sing a melody (no discernible harmony) and turn the river into a percussion instrument by plunging buckets into it or slapping their hands on the surface of the water. The size of the buckets and the way they hit the water with their hands creates different tones and textures, making the water sound like multiple different instruments. Not only is it music, but it is beautiful demonstration of turning a mundane task into a joyous celebration of community. The examples abound from around the world.

So what about hip-hop and rap?

I just spent the last month as a juror judging music videos for a competition. Out of about one hundred ten entries, over 60% were hip-hop/rap. I am not a hip-hop and rap connoisseur, but I can tell you it is music. First of all, much of it does actually include melody. If someone doesn’t know this, they haven’t taken the time to listen sufficiently to make a fair judgment about the music. Second, unlike Ben Shapiro claims, rap is more than “rhythmic speech.” Spoken word, which in a sense could be called rhythmic speech, is a performance art with it’s own genre. Most hip-hop/rap is accompanied, and the accompaniment includes: harmony! The mix of beats, bass, sampling, and a wide variety of instrumental and textural options provides a lot of interest. As I argued above, the lack of one particular element of music does not disqualify it from being music.

Even if there is only one element, it is still music. It is difficult to have a discernible harmonic progression or melody without rhythm, but rhythm can often stand alone. Consider a marching band during a parade. As they walk by when the wind instrumentalists are resting from playing, the drum corp is still playing in time. The watching audience might even be moved to boogie a little while they go by. Just drums! Just rhythm! Does Ben Shapiro think that they are not playing legitimate music?

It is unfortunate that Ben Shapiro’s music theorist father who went to music school did not teach him that music does not need to have all three elements of melody, harmony, and rhythm to qualify as real music. This kind of thinking allows a person to inaccurately and unfairly judge certain styles of music as inferior. As I said in my post, “Is Music Theory Racist?“, analysis of music is very limited to only a certain style of music in a certain place at a certain time. To hold all music to the same standards is, at best, ethnocentric and irresponsible. As a public figure, Ben Shapiro is accountable for the opinions he spreads about music, and as extension, other cultures as a whole. Ben Shapiro’s comments, whether he intended it or not, denigrates the music and culture of entire regions of Africa and Indonesia, as well as Aboriginal and Indigenous tribes, and there are likely other musics I am as of yet unaware. As a public figure, Ben Shapiro is spreading his own personal opinions of music, claiming that they are based on a universal standard, and leading his followers to agree. However, the very basis on which he is making his statements – his definition of music – is just plain wrong.

There are three elements of music. (Actually, I would argue that there are four, the fourth being form, but that discussion is for another post.) We can agree that three elements of music are melody, harmony, and rhythm. But music does not necessarily contain all three at all times. A wide variety of music exists. Sometimes it contains just one element; sometimes it uses a combination of two; sometimes music does contain all three. This is true of folk and classical musics, from around the world and in the Western tradition.

Next time you whistle a tune you made up or sing in the shower or beat a rhythm on your body, know that you are enjoying a tidbit of music. It may not be the world’s next masterpiece, but it is still music.

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A professional recording of my piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, is now available. It can be found here.

Where are the Dancing Elephants?

I have a love-hate relationship with Gustav Mahler.

I love dark Mahler. When Mahler’s music is in the depths of despair, I am right there with him, my eviscerated soul laid bare writhing in agony. There is no milk chocolate in Mahler’s world. That dark music is a gourmet flourless 80% cacao chocolate torte, so rich the flavor lasts for hours. But other times Mahler, as I like to put it, “goes Disney” – you know, the happiest place on earth. Sickeningly sweet. Like an overloaded ice cream sundae with caramel, hot fudge, peanut butter sauce and marshmallow, finished off with the obligatory whipped cream, walnuts, jimmies, and of course, cherry.

I don’t have a sweet tooth.

It’s the syrupy music of Mahler that disqualifies him from being my favorite composer, even though his somber, haunting music leaves me “deep into that darkness peering…wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before” to quote Edgar Allan Poe, a fitting pairing.

But despite the fact that I cannot bear listening to Mahler’s “Disney” music, I think I understand what he was doing. First, if music isn’t emotional, what’s the point? Second, the music must be what it is. Mahler doesn’t hold back. He allows the music and the emotion to achieve maximum fullness. It is incredibly intense, like the colors in a Fauvist painting. This is what I admire most about Mahler’s work, and I aim to emulate the courage to write passionate music regardless of the potential embarrassment of being too much.

A few months ago, I was commissioned to write a Christmas piece for the Greater Tiverton Community Chorus. As I finished it up over the weekend, I asked my husband to listen to it. I was concerned about it being “corny.” While my husband is not a composer, he is a musician with good taste and I implicitly trust his judgment. He listened, turned to me and said, “No, it’s not corny. But…it seems like something’s missing. Your ending needs more.” As I asked for more details, he sighed and replied, “I’m afraid you’re going to have go Mahler on this one.” I knew what he meant: Disney Mahler.

I revised the ending by giving the sopranos some higher notes and making the harmony more complex, then brought it back to him for another listen. In his best Edna Mole imitation, he said, “No, no, no, no, no! Dahlin’, where’s the BIG? Where are the dancing elephants?” Mahlering this up really meant working hard to pull out all the stops. Suddenly, I understood why only a touch of happiness wasn’t enough. There was still something missing, stifling the impact. I had to figure out what it was.

It finally came to me – I was missing percussion. I didn’t have the option to add timpani to the piece, but I had a piano which, in one light, is a percussion instrument. I made the left hand fill in for timpani and the right hand fill in for chimes. I gave the trumpet part more flourish and higher notes. Finally, it was finished – as over-the-top as it could be. I imagined Mahler coaching me, “That’s it. You’ve got to be all in. Go big, or go home.” I must have done it right because the director loved the piece and called it “magnificent.”

Am I falling in love with Disney Mahler?