Wednesday, June 17, 2009

#71 Think in the long term.

A big mistake I see many pianists make is focusing on the wrong things and taking short term gratification over long term success. This can happen in all stages of our professional development--- from student to concert pianist to teacher.

When teaching or studying, we must always resist the temptation of doing what "makes us look good" instead of what will actually help our development. It is a very common situation to have a student that is particularly good at one aspect of music and almost completely useless in another (in my particular case, when I was just starting out, I had extremely good octave and chord technique but couldn't play a clean fast scale to save my life.) Many teachers will opt to ignore the problem--- sometimes on purpose, more often through self deception--- and have that particular student play repertoire that is easy for him, that shows off what he can do and hides his defects. In the short term, this will make the teacher look good since his students are playing so well, and it will make those students look good in front of their peers. In the long term, it's disastrous.

It is well known that the earlier we can fix problems with our technique, the easier they are to fix. By constantly ignoring them, or hiding them, we are making the problem harder to solve in the long term--- sometimes it becomes impossible to remove. In the same way, a teacher that constantly does this ends up having very few student who go on to become professionals, hurting him in the long run (not to mention how unethical it is to hurt your students in this way.) We are all guilty of this to some degree, but the those teachers that do it purposefully are like predators that take in students, use them up until their ability to make music is damaged beyond repair and then discard them for newer, undamaged students--- usually blaming them in the process for not advancing fast enough.

Another common problem with short term thinking occurs with those musicians that are fresh out of music school. I believe that self promotion is necessary. It is absolutely essential that a musician know how to conduct himself in society and the proper channels for obtaining opportunities to play and to teach. Even so, a lot of inexperienced musicians will neglect the quality of their playing and gaining new repertoire because they are too busy playing politics, presenting projects to every single cultural institution they come across, meeting up with patrons of the arts, festivals or concert promoters. What they don't realize is that by neglecting the quality of their playing in favor of trying to "get their foot in the door", once that big break comes, they won't be able to do anything about it and probably won't get called back. I firmly believe that, if you focus on making music as well as you can, everything else will eventually more or less fall into place, as long as you aren't going to the other extreme of acting like an isolated weirdo.

I've seen it too many times to count in my fellow students or in the ones I see graduating every generation. Imagine the case of a pianist that practically stopped learning new repertoire in the two years after he left music school. He spent all his time coming up with projects and trying to get concerts. When he finally got a much sought after audition, he played in a very mediocre way. They asked him what concert repertoire he had and that pianist could only list one or two concerts. He played a recital, and they never called him back again. In that same year, he got six or seven opportunities to work with other musicians and to give concerts but, they all fell through or they never amounted to anything.

In my case, I made that mistake early enough for it not to have a significant impact on my development later so, when I left school (which wasn't that long ago,) I tried to concentrate on learning as much relevant repertoire as possible and trying to fill up all the gaps left in my education. I didn't get so many opportunities and invitations to play in the first couple of years, but every single invitation I did get turned into a modest success which invariably led to other opportunities with the same institutions and with others, through word of mouth.

As a music student it is also very important to think of long term results. In the short term, it is easy to give up because we can't really see the progress we make unless we have some perspective. A lot of students tend to stick to a practice regime or to a different way of playing for only a little while and then, when they don't see quick results, they'll stop doing it. Many things affect how you play on a given day. You probably won't see results immediately when you practice, but as the weeks go by your average ability will always go up. Think of it like of following a diet. If you are losing weight, your weight loss won't go like this: 100kg-99kg-98kg-97kg-96kg-95kg-94kg... in a steady straight line decrease. Many things can affect it, how much water or food you have on a particular day for example. It will look more like this: 100kg-96kg-99kg-97kg-93kg-97kg-92kg... in a jagged line, but always decreasing on average. In the same way, if you follow a good teacher's recommendations, you won't see a linear rise in your abilities but, on average, you will get better.

It is simple really, to get good results in the long term you must be honest with yourself and with your students. As a teacher, always do what is best for the development of your student, even if it gets you criticized by your fellow teachers because your student's repertoire isn't as flashy or they aren't playing that many concerts. As a student, don't try to hide your problems, a student's role is to fix them with guidance from his teacher. As a professional, focus on making music as best as you can above all other considerations. I believe that by doing this, in the long term, it all works out.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Bach does Arnstadt. The most metal of composers.

Johann Sebastian Bach was not a boring person. Considering that eighteenth century Germany was extremely conservative and that musicians in his situation depended almost entirely on the patronage of the church, Bach had a surprising disregard for authority and for society's conventions. During his life, he produced some of the finest music the world has ever known while being a constant source of problems for his employers. The picture that is often painted of Bach is that of a dour personality concerned only with a higher calling. Bach's first job in Arnstadt shows him in a completely new way; young Bach was surprisingly metal.

The pipe organ of the eighteenth century ranks as the most complex piece of machinery that the world would see until the industrial age. Although there is no record of how Bach acquired his knowledge, by the time he was 18 years old he was an expert in its workings and was in high demand by organ makers and churches to test and certify new organs. When testing an organ at St. Boniface, in Arnstadt, his knowledge combined with the sheer virtuosity of his playing prompted the church to fire the organist they already had and hire Bach in his place. Adding insult to injury, they payed him a sum of money unheard of for someone so young (especially considering that St. Boniface was a very poor church). Even so, in the years that followed he bickered constantly with the officials about the nature of his duties and the sum of money he was being paid--- although realistically speaking, can you really pay J. S. Bach too much?

In the few years Bach spent in Arnstadt, he was summoned many times by the Consistory (a board of clerics that made sure that everyone working for them was behaving properly.)  He was constantly getting into arguments with his musicians and he was continually reprimanded for not paying any attention to the boys' choir. Bach would argue that his contract only required him to play and maintain the organ and that they should hire a choir director to which the church would reply that they were paying him so bloody much that they couldn't afford to hire anyone else.

In one of his arguments, he called one of his bassoon players, a certain Geyersbach, a Zippel-Fagottist (goat-bassoonist). Later that day, while Bach was out taking a stroll with his cousin Barbara, goat-bassoonist showed up with a walking stick demanding satisfaction. Bach repeatedly refused to apologize and goat-bassoonist attacked him. Bach pulled out his sword and proceeded to put goat-bassoonist in his proper place (which begs the question, why is a church organist carrying around a sword?) The Consistory was definitely not pleased.

Only a couple of months after the sword incident, Bach asked for permission to visit Lübeck, home of the legendary organist Dietrich Buxtehude. He was granted four weeks. Not being one to waste money on such unmanly matters as transportation, Bach walked the whole way covering 250 miles in under ten days. Apart from his desire to listen to Buxtehude play, Bach was also there for another reason: to check out Buxtehude's unmarried daughter. Buxtehude had a very lucrative position in Lübeck and he was quite old. By common practice, the person that would would take his job would have to marry Buxtehude's daughter. Several other prominent musicians of the day (including Handel) had already made the journey with similar intentions. Bach definitely did not like what he saw because he returned to Arnstadt and immediately married his cousin Barbara--- seeing Bach draw his sword on goat-bassoonist would probably have been enough to make any woman fall at his feet. Bach's little four week trip to Lübeck ended up lasting almost four months. Needless to say, the Consistory was not pleased with Bach's trip.

The congregation of the church was also quite confused with the way Bach would accompany the chorales during the services. He would play highly ornamented versions of the choral music which, while amazing, were too complicated for the people to follow. Bach was also reprimanded for allowing a "stranger maiden" to show herself and make music. It was not customary to allow women to sing in church and the "stranger maiden" was probably Barbara.

In at least three different occasions in the months that followed, Bach had to appear before the Consistory for neglecting the boy's choir and for letting Barbara sing in church. The people in Arnstad were in awe of Bach and amazed at his ability but it was always an awkward relationship. The authorities were always patient with young Bach, but I'm sure there was a collective sigh of relief when Bach decided to leave the town.

Bach's short time in Arnstadt would set the tone for what was to come. In the years that followed, while writing some of the greatest music the world has known,  Bach managed to get himself thrown into jail for refusing to continue working for duke Wilhelm, remarried to a woman that was half his age, had 20 children and also adopted the four children of a man with whom he had a bitter rivalry, made one of the most renowned organists of his time chicken out of an organ duel, grabbed and threw people's wigs, and wrote a full cantata with the only intent of selling coffee (the Coffee Cantata might be the world's longest and most complicated commercial jingle.)

Bach's music is often associated with mathematical complexity and an expression of his deep-seated Lutheran faith. Another side to his music which is sometimes overlooked has to do with the sheer force of his character, which is apparent in the way he lived his life. For me, the work that best embodies this is the fifth Brandenburg concerto.

Throughout the concerto, the harpsichord constantly erupts into virtuoso scales and trills all over the keyboard until finally, much like Bach's peers, the rest of the instruments simply cannot keep up. Then follows a harpsichord cadenza that is unique among the music of its time. I like to imagine Bach playing it for the first time; wig askew, sweat pouring; while the rest of the people in the room watch in complete shock as the little pudgy man goes crazy (like The Who breaking their instruments on stage or Hendrix playing the guitar with his teeth). It has scales up and down, all manners of trills and diabolic ornamentation, it has the left hand leaping around in octaves (which in baroque music is amazing in itself), it has the theme jumping around from voice to voice--- it's practically Liszt at his most diabolical.

Here is the complete first movement of the concerto:

Here is Gustav Leonhardt playing the cadenza. The playing is amazing although dressing up in wigs and tights for a concert isn't really my kind of thing:

And here is Glenn Gould playing the cadenza on the piano: