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Music is Much More Than Performance

Making music with a group of like-minded individuals with one purpose before a responsive audience sharing their pleasure at hearing it is a thrilling experience. Audience members and musicians alike look forward to that moment of connection. But to consider music only as a type of performance leaves it vulnerable to becoming a superfluous form of entertainment. Yes, music is a performing art. But it is much more than that.

Due to the pandemic, I have not given a live performance in over a year, and I am certainly not the only musician in this situation. Performances may be cancelled, ensembles may not rehearse, and audiences may not gather. But music remains.

The end result of music is not simply a performance. While performance is a wonderful celebration of hard work and brings enjoyment to both the musicians and the audience, it is only a byproduct. Music is not just an art; it is a discipline. What music produces is a growth in character and thinking. For that reason, it is valuable regardless of whether or not rehearsals, performances, or audiences exist. I decided to take this time away from performing to consider other ways music has impacted me as a person.

I have been a musician all my life. I was brought to church, hearing the organ and choir each week, from before I can remember. My Mom sang songs with me and my sister, and my Dad began teaching me the piano when I was three. I have studied music ever since. In this post, I will list the various things that I believe music has contributed to my growth as a person. A few caveats: I am not saying I am fully formed in each of these areas, I can’t guarantee that all musicians develop these traits, and music is not the only discipline that can help develop these traits. However, I do believe the study of music is important because it does encourage the development of these traits – and perhaps more so than in any other singular discipline. (These are in no particular order.)

Patience. Sit around and wait. And wait quietly. Wait for the lesson of the student before you to be over. Wait while the director rehearses another section of the ensemble. Wait your turn for an audition. Wait while other musicians you are traveling with pack up their instruments. Wait for late audience members to get seated before the curtain rises. Waiting in lobbies before appointments or in line at a store or restaurant is nothing compared to the waiting I have done as a musician.

Perseverance. There is hard work. Then there is hard work that takes months or years of effort before seeing any significant results. Learning music is this second kind. I tell my beginning students and their parents to expect it to take at least three years of lessons before playing music really starts to become fun. The enjoyment to frustration ratio is very low at the beginning as students spent more time deciphering notes than playing a piece fluently, and the beginning pieces are often boring. However, being an advanced player doesn’t eliminate frustration. Endless hours of practice are needed to perfect difficult sections of music, when the ability to understand the music exceeds the ability to execute it. As a composer, I must persevere when I spend a good amount of time writing garbage and have to throw it out and try again. We must persevere when our feelings tell us we’re no good and should give up.

Humility. When one sign up to study music, one agrees to being told every week about the need to improve. There’s no such thing as having “arrived.” The most famous soloists still work at improving their craft. Some of those famous people are the most humble because 1) they are aware of their own shortcomings, 2) they know how hard every musician must work, and 3) they know the lucky breaks they’ve received that other musicians who worked just as hard didn’t get. A musician who does not practice humility is a musician who is not practicing. Humble musicians improve.

Multi-tasking, but also focusing. I know, the recent thinking is that multi-tasking is less efficient than not multi-tasking. I just happen to disagree. I do many things at once because I’ve learned to. In ensembles, one reads and/or watches the director, listens, and plays/sings all at the same time. One cannot play music well without multi-tasking. On the other hand, musicians must hyper-focus. Independent practicing and zooming in on even a single beat, to make sure that every detail is exactly right, requires intense focus. Advanced musicians can spend a long time in a room alone with their instruments (or notation tools if they are a composer) and do nothing but work. It’s not uncommon for me to practice for two hours straight at the piano before taking a break. I have to remind myself to drink water and use the bathroom. How do musicians simultaneously focus on their parts and multi-task by listening to the rest of the ensemble during a performance? It is a mystery! But this is how musicians’ minds work.

Intentional listening. Listening to one’s self – for the right notes, rhythms, phrasing, tone, dynamics; listening to others – to match rhythms, phrasing, tone, dynamics, as well as to balance and fit the parts together correctly. In improvisational settings, a musician also listens for the holes in the music and then fills them. The musician is listening to learn and thus respond appropriately. This is not casual listening.

Self-evaluation. Beginning musicians must be corrected by their teachers, and the rate of learning is dependent on how often they have lessons and how much correction they need. As musicians improve, they take on more self-evaluation and can recognize and correct more of their mistakes themselves. This requires a commitment to self-criticism. While it is important not to become unhealthily obsessed with perfection, a good musician avoids lazily accepting mediocrity.

Interpretation. Music is a large category with many genres and styles. Each genre or style requires it’s own technique to be played properly. In order to do this, the musician must understand how to play it. I have heard many classical musicians attempt to play jazz music; it sounds awkward and stilted. I have heard jazzers try to play classical music; it’s sloppy and unrefined. That’s not to say NO classical players can correctly play jazz, or that NO jazzers can play classical music well; some can. But it takes a lot of effort to learn the setting and approaches of these different types of music. Even within the larger category of classical music, there are different approaches: one plays the work of Joseph Haydn far differently than the work of Claude Debussy. Under the jazz heading, Big Band music is far different from Bebop. No matter what kind of music one is playing, the mature musician has learned how to make the musical decisions which bring the music to life in a way that accurately portrays the time and place it came from, whether old or new, whether from one’s own culture or another. It is impossible to learn all the different styles and genres, though I personally think it is important to learn as many as possible. Music also provides the opportunity to develop cultural appreciation as one learns about the historical and stylistic development of various musics.

Fine Motor Skills and/or coordination. These skills will vary depending on the instrument. Piano requires both fine motor skills and coordination, as pianists use all the fingers in various combinations and usually use both hands together. Drummers playing set must coordinate both hands and both feet! String players must coordinate their fingers on the fingerboard with bowing, strumming, or plucking with the other hand. Wind players must coordinate the movement of their lips and tongue with their fingers. And so forth.

Pattern Recognition. Music is all about patterns. There are patterns within pieces that help to create a sense of continuity. There are also patterns, like rhythms for example, that transcend individual pieces and help musicians quickly learn something new. Not only do musicians recognize patterns, but they also notice the minute changes to a pattern.

Attention to Detail. The level of detail musicians must pay attention to is astounding. Simultaneously, they have a sense of how their tongues are held in their mouths or how their fingers are touching their instruments, the manner they are sitting or standing, the way they breathe, the proper start, pitch, length, and finish of a note, how loud or soft they must play. Some of these details can change from one split-second to another! Musicians develop an internal sense of how long a second is and then are able to divide that into smaller units. It is not uncommon for musicians to play at speeds where notes last for 1/10 of a second or perhaps even faster!

Planning ahead/preparedness. One cannot cram learning music. That’s not to say people don’t try. But there is a limit to how quickly one can train the muscles to play the proper notes in the proper time in the proper way. Each person is different in how long it takes to learn music, but an insufficient amount of preparation will become obvious during performance. (Caveat: not all mistakes are due to a lack of preparation.) Musicians must plan ahead to make sure that they learn the music. They have to set aside enough practice time, and they also must plan out how they spend their practice time. Which sections of the piece are most difficult and need more work? Directors of ensembles preparing for a concert must consider how much time is needed during rehearsals to master each piece. If this is not planned out well, the audience will know which pieces got more attention than others. Musicians also must plan their months and even years in advance, making sure all performances and rehearsals are marked on the calendar. Musicians can’t just show up to gigs and immediately start playing. They must lug their gear around and set up. They have to give their instruments time to acclimate to the performance space. They have to give themselves time to get their heads together. Musicians must prepare for the possibility of some things going wrong. When I was playing saxophone and clarinet a lot, I always brought an extra reed up on stage with me. A few times, I have switched reeds during a concert because the one I had cracked. Guitar players carry extra strings. Musicians also must plan ahead for regular instrument upkeep and repair and have a plan in place if their primary instrument must unexpectedly be in the shop at the same time as a performance.

Self-direction. Learning music is like learning to read. Once one is proficient, the world is opened up. There is nothing except the level of effort one wants to exert that limits a musician from branching out. New pieces, new styles of music, new instruments, new projects, new techniques. No one is going to call up musicians and tell them it’s time to practice or experiment with something different. All of that is the prerogative of the musician. They have learned to be self-directed and can do whatever they wish if they decide to use that skill.

Did I miss any? What else would you add to this list? I would love your input!

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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.

Farm to Table, Studio to Earbud

Music is a lot like farming.

Before you think I’m crazy, hear me out.

I know a lot of musicians, and I know quite a few farmers. Not surprisingly (to me), there is a connection between the two. Musicians, at least most of the ones I know, are extremely interested in the natural world. Obviously, so are farmers. A lot of farmers are amateur musicians. (Admittedly, most musicians are not farmers and perhaps not even gardeners, but Giuseppi Verdi famously had a career in both fields simultaneously.) However, a love for the natural world is not the only thing that connects farmers and musicians.

This past summer while on a volunteer harvesting session at a local farm with Hope’s Harvest, I got talking with the other harvesters, one of whom was also a musician. She quipped, “Farmers and musicians are both dreamers.”

Yes, farmers and musicians are both dreamers. It is this that connects them.

It’s not just the hope of the dream coming to fruition. It’s not just the love for the people they serve, those who eat their food or listen to their music. It is also about the enormous amount of effort, time and money they put into their livelihood, the frustrations of the variability of income due to the season or other events outside their control, and the willingness to scrape by and create diverse avenues of income to piece together a living. It’s also about the shared experience of the average consumer having no accurate concept of what it takes to get food onto their plate or music into their ears.

The American consumer is subsidized in ways that most do not understand. Most simply pick up food at the grocery store without much thought to how it got there. They don’t see the billions of dollars the government gives to agribusiness to insure farmers and keep costs low at the grocery store. They don’t see the depression farmers face. They don’t see that many farmers save money by selling their produce and then buying canned veggies at the store instead of eating what they grew themselves. Most customers have only heard of the big-ag companies; they don’t know the first name of the small-time farmer living in the next town over.

Likewise, most music lovers do not understand that their listening habits are subsidized. Instead of being underwritten by the government, the costs are kept low for them through advertising. They can listen to the radio or stream music on the internet for “free.” They’ve heard of the music stars that get famous; they know the big record labels. But they don’t know the names of local bands or members of the local orchestra.

Most people do not realize how extremely expensive it is for both farmers and musicians to make a go at it. Farmers spend a tremendous amount of money on land, equipment and supplies, often going into an extreme amount of debt. They have to buy seeds and animals on “spec”, hoping that a good season will reward them with enough income to at least break even on expenses, excluding the cost of their own sweat. Musicians, too, must invest in instruments and travel. Some even mortgage their instruments because they cost so much! Independent musicians put up thousands of dollars of their own money to create albums to sell, hoping they will sell enough to break even on expenses, excluding the cost of their own time.

Farmers and musicians who work with the big companies have their hands tied in many ways. They are contracted to grow this or write/perform that. Ultimately, they do not own their own product; the big companies do. They farmers and musicians actually growing or creating the product earn pennies on the dollar for each sale.

The independent farmer and musician have control over their fields and their music, but they also take on all the risk themselves. As smaller operations, they can be more flexible, but costs are much higher. They are not required to conform to larger market expectations but can create a niche customer base, offering unique products and a direct relationship to their customers and audience.

As a consumer, you have a choice. You can stick to the familiar marketplace, or you can seek out the independent producers. It’s the difference between shopping at a big box store or frequenting your local mom-and-pop shop. When you support an independent farmer or musician, you are supporting a small business and contributing to your local economy. Plus, you will have the benefits of knowing your farmer or musician personally and access to food and music you can’t get anywhere else.

I encourage you to go small and go local!

The professional recording of my piece for string orchestra, “Daughter of the Stars” has just been released on Ablaze Record’s Orchestral Masters Volume 7. I partnered with Ablaze in this project. I paid for and own the recording, while they took care of production, the album cover and other things. They have permission to use the piece on the album; we split the profit from sales. I am a small business; so is Ablaze. By purchasing this recording, you support two small businesses for the cost of just $1. You can find the recording here: https://ablazeorchestralmasters.bandcamp.com/track/daughter-of-the-stars

Thank you for reading! Subscribe to receive these posts in your email. Share this post with anyone you think may enjoy reading it! Please consider supporting my work through making a donation.

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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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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Livestreamed Concerts: The Good, The Bad, and the Implications

My local orchestra has been livestreaming chamber music concerts this season, and I’ve subscribed. I thought about getting a ticket to be part of the limited in-person audience, but for a number of reasons decided against it, one being that I have to drive an hour each way to get there. And my schedule is still weird, despite the fact there’s not much on it. I would have already missed an in-person concert due to picking up my son from college. Since I’ve been watching livestreamed concerts, I want to take a moment to talk about what I like and dislike about them. At the end, I will talk about the implications this could have on performances, live or livestreamed, going forward.

The Good

The view. Watching livestreamed performances is a little bit like watching sports on T.V. In the concert hall, as in the arena, there are seats with a good view and seats with almost no view at all. You guessed it – the seats that are the most affordable are the farthest distance from the action. I don’t mind this in a concert hall. I care about how the musicians play more than what they are wearing or what expressions they make on their faces while performing. I actually prefer sitting in the balcony seats because I can hear the entire orchestra blended rather than sitting closest to the violins and hearing almost nothing else. The technology of the livestreamed performance, however, allows me to hear the full ensemble sound and see the musicians up close. The view is much closer than even the first rows of a concert hall would allow, since the cameras are on stage. Last week I watched a piano trio perform Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Trio in Bb Major, Op.97. The camera shots were well done and captured each musician individually as they had “mini solos” throughout the piece. It was not unlike watching a great sports play, except there was no repeat of the play in slow motion.

I get to read scores easily. When I’m at home, I’ve got the lights on. I can grab a score off the shelf or find one online and follow along. It’s not that I can’t read a score at the concert hall, but it is more difficult. I’d either have to attend an open rehearsal, or I’d have to risk bothering my fellow patrons, turning on my phone’s flashlight and making noise turning pages. I would definitely need a paper copy of the score – a computer screen would create far too much light and possibly even bother the musicians on stage.

I get to walk around. Sometimes I have a hard time sitting for long periods, especially when that’s all I’m doing. I rarely watch TV, and I can’t get through a movie without pausing it and taking a quick break (one reason I also like watching movies at home!) A concert hall near me has the most uncomfortable seats. Sitting in them actually causes me physical pain; I am not inclined to spend money to sit in them. While livestreaming a performance, I can move around while still listening. A couple of weeks ago, while watching a performance of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto online, I remembered I had a copy of the score on the shelf and went to go get it. I didn’t have to climb over other people’s knees to leave my seat. The freedom to get out of my seat and walk around during a performance is a big plus.

I get to talk. Again, this is not unlike watching sports on T.V. If a group of people get together to watch a sports game, they cheer and yell at the screen. They complain about the umpire or referee’s calls, they criticize a player’s bad throw, and they jump up and down and cheer when a great play has been made. A livestreamed performance allows for all this, compared to the concert hall where we’ve been taught that we must sit still and be quiet as church mice. A couple of weeks ago, I watched a performance (I will keep the piece and performers nameless to protect their identities – all I will say is that it was a professional group), and it was awful. The players were so out of tune I twisted my face in reaction. I said out loud, “Play in tune!” and questioned, “Have you been practicing in quarantine?” But on the positive side of things, when pieces went well I could cheer. There were many moments during the Beethoven trio which brought out an “Ooh, that was nice!” or “Wow!” or a quick clap of joy.

The Bad

The musicians can’t hear me clap. I still clap at the end while watching from home, though honestly I didn’t clap at the end of that one awful piece. I clap because I’m happy. I enjoyed the piece. I enjoyed the performance. The clapping is just one expression of that. I feel bad that the musicians can’t hear that through a livestreamed performance because I want them to know how much I enjoyed it. The best livestreams are on platforms that allow comments while the music is going on, and then have a Q&A at the end, because in this way the audience has some ability to interact with the performers.

The Implications

Music is a performing art. This distinction is extremely important, because the performance is what sets music (and other performing arts) apart from static arts, like visual art, books, or even sound installations – all of which seem to me like a one-sided conversation. The author, painter, sculptor, or sound artist has already spoken and presented a viewpoint. They don’t know my response to their work unless I go out of my way to find them and send a letter. A performance, in comparison, involves both performers and audience in real time, and the relationship between the two has been set into relief during this pandemic.

Most musicians will tell you that they feed off the audience, and that performing without one is very difficult. This is true across all genres of music.

However, the relationship between performers and audience has been quite different across genres of music. Think about attending a rock concert. There’s no sitting quiet as church mice. There’s jumping, shouting and cheering, singing along. Think about attending a folk concert of any kind. Some may sit in rapt attention. Others may get up and dance or bring a picnic. I’ve been to informal outdoor concerts where parents are throwing a Frisbee with their kids. They’re not not paying attention. They are simply enjoying the music in a different way.

Classical music has been too much like a one-sided conversation. The music is presented like a piece of art hung on the wall – the performers present, the audience listens, formally and quietly. Then the audience gets to respond in a prescribed manner: clap at the end.

This robs the audience of being able to fully engage naturally with the music. In watching the livestreams, I’ve become aware of my own desire to react and respond while listening, instead of just clapping at the end. I want the freedom to express that. If the music is bad, the musicians deserve to be called out as much as football players who fumble the ball. If the music is good, how much nicer it is to hear the gleeful response of the audience in real time. I have had the experience of hearing the audience cheer while I performed a piano solo. It was incredible! The rawness of the immediate response only further energized my playing.

The downside is that if a musicians botch a performance, the audience will let them know. (Will that make musicians even more neurotic, or will it crack the facade of perfectionism and ultimately lead to freedom from it?) The way I see it is: if I dare share something publicly, whether my art or my opinion, I dare open myself up to public mistakes and criticism. I’m not saying that is easy; this is precisely why it is scary and most people don’t try. Decades ago, composers faced boos and even riots at premieres of their compositions. Silence is worse. At least criticism lets one know that the audience cares.

In general, I’d love to see classical music concerts become more set up like watching a sports game in an arena. In a large concert hall, keep the cameras on stage. Set up screens around the hall so those who wish to see some up-close shots can. Leave the lights on dim, so those of us who want to read scores can without being a nuisance. Allow people to get up and move around, maybe even do some free-dorm dance, and eat in certain sections. Allow a reasonable amount of talking. Perhaps some amplification would be needed to adjust for that. Let the audience respond naturally to the music in boos and cheers and clapping in random places.

No one expects the audience to sit still and quiet during sports events, or during rock concerts. So why do we do this during classical concerts? I don’t think I want to go back to sitting still in uncomfortable seats crammed in like sardines and muzzled like dogs. I want my reaction as an audience member to be part of the concert experience. Perhaps these changes will remove “boring, stiff, and formal” from the classical repertoire.

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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.