October 27, 2014

Album Review: U2 - Songs of Innocence

My first concert was sweaty and dangerous. Or rather, it had the distinct heaviness of danger. That pressure that starts in your chest and travels to your knees alternately locking and loosening them, synchronizing to the quickening pulse in your temple as you fear for your safety while simultaneously feeling the rush of adrenaline as it careens through your body. It was at the storied (storied among certain circles) Triple Rock in Minneapolis. The singer had tattoos on his neck that resembled like necrotizing fasciitis. His voice sounded the same. Like a sawtooth wave, his screaming could shock the devil. The creamy violence of the guitars and sixteenth-note barrage of bass drum hits blended the crowd into a meringue of black t-shirts, facial jewelry, and fists. Being thin, not prone to violence, and literally weak of heart I stayed on the outskirts, which while saving my body, left me prone to receive a Converse to the skull as a young man attempted flight over my head.

Actually, that wasn't my first concert.

My first concert was a few years earlier, in that same space. Three of my favorite bands were somehow all playing on the same tour. Two were instrumental, one was not. At the end of the evening, when the Japanese musicians took their places, all standing save one seated guitarist, I was prepared. I stood in the front, my hands on a studio monitor bracing for impact. This was not a a rough crowd. These were patrons enjoying art. Words were not necessary, the screaming fortes and imperceptible pianos did all the necessary talking. When a group fires all together, coup d'archet, one can feel a blow on their body. The slap of air is caused by the speakers all firing at once, displacing gallons of air thrown at the audience. When the blast hits your ears, it is accompanied by a physical sensation. You connect directly, bodily, to the music.

But that wasn't my first concert either.

My first concert was in a dive bar in St. Paul. It had undergone various transformations over time and is now the only expressly "metal" bar in the Twin Cities. It was a miracle my parents allowed me out of the car when they dropped me off with my friends. It was a school-night. This club looked (and was) grimy. People waiting in line were wearing costumes reminiscent of Micky Mouse's wizard robe in Fantasia. The room had pillars throughout the space making any sort of mosh-pit impossible. Pillars is the wrong word though. Pillars imply the grandiosity of ancient Greece. Pillars sound respectable and decorous. This was a dank basement. These were poles. These held the building up.

My first concert?

My first concert was in an arena. It was a tour of some of the biggest bands in hard-rock. One wrote songs about politics and incorporated middle-eastern features. One was German and used flame throwers and a giant phallus. One wore masks and had more drummers than a marching band competition. These tickets must have been expensive although we sat so far from the stage that we had to watch everything on the enormous video screens that flanked the performers. Our favorite band performed second to last. I sang along to every song, although the band didn't seem to notice the effort. The masked men played last. We stayed for a few songs, then in the ultimate display of superiority, we left partway through their set. As we crossed the street in downtown St. Paul, seeking the corner my parents had agreed to pick us up at, we spotted a few members of the German band. The one with the donut hair had his arms around two women, while the skinny one nuzzled a third. They walked to the corner we were standing on. "Are you Rammstein?" I asked. "Ja," replied one of the blond women, "ve are vith Rammstein."

No, that wasn't my first concert

My first concert was in Minneapolis at the Target Center. I was with my father. He was taking me to see a Canadian band that was easily one of the most famous bands in the world at the time. They peddled in upbeat clever folksy rock, didn't swear, and had the kind of homey humor that made them a safe group to listen to with ones own parents. They made jokes on stage that at the time felt like they were just for us, all 20,000 of us. Despite being a middle-schooler I wasn't embarrassed to be there with my father. He didn't know the music as well as I did (my massive CD wallet had two whole pages dedicated to their albums) so I was excited to expose him to their songs. We sat the entire time, squinting at the stage, glancing at the screens, laughing at the jokes, cheering at the local references. I would go on to see them again the next year. Different venue, same experience.

That was my first concert.

October 21, 2014

Music Typefaces: Bass Clef

A handwritten bass clef from Satie's Sports and Diversions
Previously I wrote about the different types of clefs, but in this post I'll get to what really started my head spinning. People obsess over design. I've always been appreciative of the way something looks, but I tend to favor functionality over pizzazz. That may explain why I've never noticed the differences in music fonts before. There was the obvious difference between jazz fonts and...well, everything else, but beyond that I'd never given thought to the design of music notes or clefs. In this post I'll focus on the bass clef. There won't be any discussion of the evolution of the bass clef, just how it's been designed in publications over the past century.

For this post I'll be ignoring hand-written bass-clefs, extended technique markings, and neumes. I'll focus solely on the little differences, some mundane, some trivial, and some fantastic that go into the design of a bass clef.

First, I'll lay down some terminology that I use over the course of this post. I couldn't find any set of words to describe the parts of the bass clef so I've made some up and tried to stay consistent with them over the course of this post.

original image from Wikipedia user Popadius. Markings added by WMPT

I've use the word "dot" to mean either the two floating dots to the right of the clef or "central dot" for the large point of origination on the left. When I refer to the symbol not including the dots I'll usually call it the "swirl". The "top line" refers to the area at the top of the symbol. "Right wall" refers to the entire thick area on the right side of the swirl. "Tail" refers to the point at the bottom.

Most of the differences between typesets I found concerned thicknesses and height. Sometimes it was difficult to tell if the thickness varied due to excess ink on the plates, or were intentional design characteristics but I tried to find representative examples from the scores. 

from Gottschalk's Souvenir de Puerto Rico, publisher unkown

The above clef (and subsequent six flats) are from a Gottschalk piece Souvenir de Puerto Rico. I think this design fits what many would view as "standard". It sports a thickness on the right wall and tapers as it moves to the bottom. The top segment of the swirl thins as well, almost disappearing into the top line of the staff. The central dot is also thick, which I think gives it the appearance of being the origination of the swirl. I've always drawn my bass clefs from that center dot, as I imagine most do. Perhaps that thickness comes from extra ink that comes off the pen from the initial contact? My favorite part of this bass clef is at its bottom. Some clefs will extend into the bottom space, while others stop short. The real reason I included this one was the fact that it barely sneaks in. An immeasurable bit of it dangles into the bottom space, giving it a bit of whimsy and brashness. As you'll notice moving on, the dots, which are maybe the bass clef's most characteristic part, rarely change much between designs.

from Kabalevsky's op. 27, Schirmer Ed.

The above clef from a Kabalevsky children's piece has a more fluid design than the Gottshalk but has a bulbous central dot. After that large dot, it doesn't taper, but immediately thins to the top, which appears to barely creep over the top line before plunging into a thick (but not too thick) wall before tapering to the bottom. This clef stops directly on the B-line, not extending whatsoever into the low A. It's a clean, very standard looking clef. Not the type of F-clef you'd write home about.

from Joplin's The Sycamore, pub Will Rossiter (Dover Reprint)

I love this bass clef, from a Dover reprint of a Will Rossiter published Joplin rag. Whereas most clefs usually touch the top line and dance around the second-to-bottom, this clef is content floating in the middle. Its squatness allows us to see the top curve more clearly and shows us that the tapering from the right wall to the top curve is more severe than it appears when the top is flush with the staff. The tail is docked so short that it doesn't line up vertically with the left edge of the central dot, giving it a more upright look. What really set this design apart for me is the way the entire clef is pressed up against the left barline. They are not touching, but nearly so. On a few of the systems throughout the piece the clef appeared to be touching the line, but the majority appeared as above. The dots on this design are also exquisitely round, proportional to the swirl component, and appear to be slightly off-center from the F-line, sinking down toward the bottom of the staff.

from Chou Wen-Chen's The Willows are New, Peters Ed.

This Peters Edition bass clef from Chinese-American composer Chou Wen-Chen's The Willows are New has one of my favorite aspects, the tail that barely peeks over into the bottom space, and also softly grazes the top line, giving the appearance that it should be just a touch higher in order to line up more snugly. I think the proportions in thickness are very elegant in this bass clef, although for some reason the fact that the dots are too high stresses me out.

from Cecile Chaminade's Concert Etudes, Masters Music
The design used in this Masters Music publication of Chaminades Concert Etudes is similar to the Chou Wen-Chen above, but with a bit more thickness. It appears squatter, and the dots are thicker as well.

from Kabalevsky, Schirmer Ed
I'm uncertain if these Kabalevsky scores are reprints of original plates or if Schirmer handled the original publication but this clef comes from the same book as the one up above. It's a really heavy design with a thick right wall, bold central dot, and large dots on the right. One of the things I love about this bass cleff is the tiny thickness that's added at the bottom tip of the tail. I checked this one against other bass clefs in the same opus and most of them have that widening at the end. The longer tail also appears to extend past the central dot, giving it an interesting asymmetry.

from David Diamond's A Myriologue, Southern Music Publishing Co.
The thickness of the Kabalevsky bass clef has nothing on this Southern Music clef. In this design the heavily slumping dots are dwarfed by the super thick swirl. The right wall is so thick that it almost connects to the dots (if you squint you can see the F of the F-clef). The coupling of a short tail and miniscule tapering gives the tip a stubby appearance. Paradoxically, the entire thing appears very thin in total, despite the width of the lines.

from Poulenc's Piano Concerto, Salabert Ed.
This Salabert bass clef from Poulenc's Piano Concerto gets so thin that it pretty much disappears above the central dot, Most of the clefs in this score were like this, although the break in the top line of the staff that shows up in this particular image may be indicative of thin inking in the printing.

from Joplin's Breeze from Alabama, John Stark and Son (Dover Reprint)
I adore this bass clef from another Joplin rag. These early American publishers had a keen sense of individuality and whimsy in their design. I think the design of this clef mirrors the fun, freewheeling nature of ragtime. The tail clearly extends far past the central dot, making the clef appear to list to the side and rest on the extended right wall. The central dot is thick and the top is thin, the exaggerated proportions reflecting the outbursts and syncopated rhythms that made this music so popular.

from Joplin's Rag-Time Dance, John Stark and Son (Dover Reprint)
Another Joplin rag printed by John Stark and Son. It's got a lot of the features of the design from "Breeze from Alabama", the bulbous central dot, the long tail, and thin ceiling. It's not nearly as extravagant as the former clef though, nor the small clef from "The Sycamore" but it contains an appealing compactness. It doesn't quite touch the top line and asserts itself in the bottom space with a nice clean confidence that sets it apart from most other bass clefs.

from Leschetizky Op. 2, Century Music Publishing
This one is bizarre for so many reasons. The swirl itself appears elongated with the top not even coming close to touching the line and a tail that juts with an accusatory point to the bottom of the staff. The central dot is extremely close to the right wall and the entire thing seems stretched in a fun-house mirror. Oh, and that's not even talking about the dots. This is the only clef that I found in my library with altered dots. Most of the time the dots are the fun but standard component of the bass clef. They're charismatic but stalwart. You know what you're getting with bass clef dots. This design not only plays with the dots, it completely alters them. The diamonds that take the place of the dots are shocking and huge. The top dot extends above the top line. The dots touch each other. What is happening here? I was also struck by the flats in the key signature. Their close proximity to each other assumes a pianist who will know the key with a simple glance and doesn't need to take the time to read each note. They are so close in fact, that the stem of the Ab collides with bulb of the Eb. Combined with the thinness of the bass clef everything here look spiky and tall.

from Benjamin Carr's Fantasia on Air "Gramachree" published RH Hobson 183-
 Finally, the bass clef that started this entire thing. I featured it in the last post, but here it is again. This fantastical rvferse swirl from Carr's Fantasia. It speaks for itself in its far-flunged-ness so I'll remain quiet.

This string I started pulling on has really sparked an interest in a world I've never thought of before. We toy with and document our typesets and fonts in the world of literature but it's not something that musicians reflect on. In what ways do these designs affect our interpretation of the music? There are some conventions in these designs but what defines a "standard" bass clef? In my mind, there's no such thing as standard anymore. I hope that these are conscious, difficult decisions that are made by composer and publisher and that they don't go away with the rise of computer publishing. Mostly, I wish that publishers were willing to take risks on these sorts of things. They don't get in the way of the music, and if anything can give extra information to a performer. 

I'm obsessed.

October 13, 2014

St Paul 8/18, 2012

Old keys, old picture

October 12, 2014

Clefs, Movable and Otherwise

Recently I've been working on a piece of music composed by early American composer Benjamin Carr. The piece, Fantasia on Air "Gramachree" can be found for free on IMSLP.org, which is good as works by the composer are relatively difficult to come by. The date of publication for this work is unknown although it's estimated in several places to be from the 1830s by Philadelphia publisher R.H. Hobson. The piece itself is unusual and interesting, but what immediately caught my eye was the alluring bass clef used in this particular typeface.

from Benjamin Carr's Fantasia on Air "Gramachree" published RH Hobson 183-
I'm not sure if I've seen a bass clef like this before. My eye may have skimmed over one in the past but it jumped out to me this time. I showed it to a student and her eyes lit up. The bass clef is one of the first non-note musical symbols that most students learn to draw. It's easier to handle than its treble counterpart and its distinguishing characteristic, the two floating dots, seem to capture students' imaginations. This particular bass clef, with its retrograde swirl (the normal bass clef swirls clock-wise from the center), its compact stature, and extra turn looks wholly wholly unfamiliar compared to the "standard" bass clef. It got me curious though. What is a standard bass clef? Is there such a thing?

In this post I'm going to give a little run-down of clefs, what they used to look like, and what they look like now. This will not be a thorough history of the clef. There will be no neumes.
from Wikipedia Page: Clef

In the graphic above, on the far left is the Treble clef, or "G-clef". G-clef refers to the fact that the line that passes through the swirl  (it makes a sort of bulls-eye) is the note G above-middle-C. It is thought that the symbol evolved from the actual letter G, or possibly a G and an S for the note "G" plus the solfege syllable "Sol". Of course, some don't think either is true, and our symbol just evolved as a sort of convention over time.

from The Smithsonian via Harvard Dictionary of Music and Wikipedia

The second clef of the four written above is the bass clef. Our humble Bass Clef is sometimes referred to as the F-clef because those cute little dots surround the F below-middle-C. Whereas the treble clef is appropriate for most melodic instruments, the bass clef is a bit more specialized. Naturally, only low instruments use it keeping it the domain of bassists, cellists, trombones, timpani and piano to name a few. The bass clef is also an F-clef in a different way. It is understood that the bass clef evolved from the written letter F. This can be easily seen by drawing a horizontal line from the dots to the swirl component of the clef.

graphic from Sensimilla blog

The third and fourth clefs are both types of C-clef. They are named this because the line that passes through the center of the clef is Middle-C. This is our only remaining "movable clef" (technically the others can move as well, but they usually don't) in that it can be moved up and down the staff to suit the instrument that's using it. These clefs are also sometimes seen in older choral music, to fit the parts of the choir better than a treble clef can. For example, an alto voice which spends a lot of time between A below-middle-C and B above-middle-C would need to use a whole bunch of ledger lines and wast half of the treble clef staff. With a C-clef (Alto clef above) you can fit more of her notes onto the staff.

We don't use movable clefs nearly as much anymore and even the C-clef is a bit of a rarity. Violists use it all the time, and other instruments that have a low to middle range such as the cello also dabble in its use. Even though the C-clef is the only one that still moves around, it was once common to have the other clefs move as well. By moving your bass clef you can change the line that F is located on. The same is possible with the treble clef.

The graphic below shows the different ways the clefs can be moved around:
from Wikipedia Page: Clef

Other alterations of the clef can be made as well. One of the most common is the use of a treble clef for tenors despite the fact that the notes they sing are an octave below where they are written. Use of a bass clef would make more sense, but because the notes that a tenor sings fit more nicely onto an octave-adjusted treble clef, they are written up there. Often this is just understood and no marking is made in the score, but sometimes the symbol below is used to denote that the notes being sung or played should be happening an octave lower than written.
from Wikipedia Page: Clef

Our clefs have evolved and largely settled where they are now. With a connected society and a couple centuries of printing behind us, it is unlikely that further developments as drastic as the ones in the 1600s will take place. But even though our clefs have settled into position and look largely the same, what about that crazy Benjamin Carr bass clef that started this whole thing?

A shoe is still recognizable as a shoe even if each model looks drastically different. Imagine if there existed a wild-west era of musical fonts. Individual publishers had their own typesets meaning you could pick up two different pieces of music and notice tiny details that vary. In the next post I collected a dozen differently designed bass clefs and analyzed the small, but striking differences between them. If you thought there was only one way to draw a bass clef, you were so wrong.

October 8, 2014

Shopping Around: The Traveler Student

One of the big benefits of working at a school rather than from your home is that you can get transfer students from other teachers. Sometimes the transfers happen because a teacher recommended it, sometimes because of scheduling conflicts, and sometimes because the parents want someone else. Then there are the travelers. Students who have had three, four, five teachers over the course of their lives. I have a number of students for whom I'm their third teacher in the last couple of years. It's an experience I didn't have as a young student. I had one teacher for part of a year who I didn't like very much and my parents moved me to another studio, which I stayed in until I went to college. Sometimes these moves are completely justified. There are other things to watch out for.

The Multi-Instrumentalist
There exists a point at which an instrument becomes truly challenging. Once the basics are out of the way, the music reading is all firmly in place, and students get their first taste of true intermediate repertoire it can be a make-or-break moment. Many students at this point will start to look at other instruments. Whenever I have students who are going to quit in order to take up another instrument I always warn their parents about this. Learning a new instrument is easy at first, but once it gets difficult the same thing is likely to happen. If you have a transfer student who took a year and half of more than one other instrument, watch out, you may lose her to flugelhorn next summer. 

The "Go Easy" Parents
Some parents like a strict teacher, many do not. Maybe it's a generational thing, that current parents grew up in a border zone between knuckle slapping schoolmarms and laissez-faire households, but it seems like the stern, nagging piano teacher is a figure of the past. I've had a number of parents insist to me that they're looking for a teacher who wouldn't push their children too hard. Often the more you get into it, it looks like they're seeking a teacher who has exceedingly low expectations. This is a tricky situation, because although you may not be a particularly strict teacher, you also know that learning an instrument takes discipline. At some point you will want to be able to say "Yes, your child will have to practice. Because he will never learn anything if he doesn't." But you will probably just say "We'll see what we can do!" because in the end, you're a pushover.

The Miracle Teacher
Some parents are not looking for a teacher who will motivate and get their kid interested in piano, they are looking for a teacher who will transform their child into a perfect musician, with little to no work on the student's part. If your transfer student has had more teachers than years of lessons, there's a good chance that this is the underlying problem. There is a belief in our country that teachers are the beginning and end of education. A good teacher is important, but the student also has to have good habits. Parents need to emphasize to the child that hard work is the road to any acquisition of skill. A good teacher can work tirelessly to teach a brick wall how to play piano, but that wall will never progress to early-advanced repertoire. If your student has taken lessons from every other teacher in the school, talk to those teachers and find out why they transferred. Then watch for those same signs.

I've only received (and lost) a few students who are as well traveled as these. Some of them have even stuck around for quite awhile now. One thing that I offer is a pop-piano curriculum which is a nice break from the standard fare that most teachers will offer. Students who are transferring around a lot often enjoy playing piano, but get frustrated with the weekly grind of difficult classical pieces. I emphasize that learning a new style of playing is not going to be easy, and takes just as much discipline, but I think the very act of changing tracks can be refreshing enough to settle students down for a bit. We'll see though, the future is wide and there are still other teachers out there.

October 3, 2014

Hospice Students: What to do with students who are quitting

I didn't come up with the term "hospice students". One of my fellow teachers dropped that little nugget as we walked out of our school a couple nights ago. We were talking about the need occasionally to space out a bit in lessons and not give 100%. I know, it sounds like we're basically making excuses for being bad teachers, but after you spend some time giving private music lessons you understand that it's impossible to be your best self at all times. Some days you will be an exemplary educator, and some days you won't. Alternately, sometimes your students deserve a great teacher, and sometimes they don't.

Then my friend used this term "hospice" to refer to some of her students and after a moment of genuine concern for the health of her young wards I understood fully what she was talking about. A hospice student is not one that needs special home lessons because of a grave illness, a hospice student is one who is going to quit.

Usually a student acquires this status mid-term when the perfect storm brews of student deciding they want to quit, parent deciding it isn't worth fighting them, and 5 weeks left in the term that mom has already paid for. The teacher ends up with the unsavory job of taking care of the student for those final weeks and coming up with anything that will make those 30 minutes as painless as possible. Sometimes the information is sprung on you at the end of a lesson ("This will be Billy's last semester of piano.") and sometimes you can see it a couple of months out. Piano teachers have to plan for this. I actually keep a mental list going at all times of the students who are likely to drop over the next year so I can work on replacing them as quickly as possible.

Hospice students can be painful. They often stop practicing completely (in all honesty they probably haven't been practicing much up to this point at all). Sometimes they can have extreme attitude problems, stemming from parental insistence that they finish the term. They represent two things for the teacher. One is a developmental dead end that you have to keep teaching. If your student has expressed that they never want to play the instrument again, how are you supposed to stay motivated as a teacher knowing that the information you're imparting is basically being flushed down the toilet? The other thing that a hospice student represents is a hole in your future schedule and consequently in your finances. And because often the parent doesn't make it explicit that they are going to drop at the end of the term, you may not be able to fill the spot immediately.

I've found that there are some useful things to do with one of these hospice students. If the student is moving on to a new instrument (which carries a whole other bundle of issues) try to shape some lessons that will help with the new instrument. For kids moving to guitar, I try to do some basic music theory work, showing them how to build chords, what a normal harmonic progression looks and sounds like, and how certain melodic notes fit into a harmony. For kids moving to percussion, I do rhythmic reading, rhythm transcriptions, and other kinds of non-melodic exercises. Honestly, those are the two most common instruments I've lost kids to, although I'm sure plenty of teachers have lost students to other melodic instruments. If my student is moving to a new instrument, I try to give them a taste of what they might be in for, rather than just trying to plug away at the piano for a few more weeks.

If the student is quitting but is not going to a new instrument there are fewer options. I will often do the same kinds of things as I mentioned before, with a "general music" kind of flavor to them. Sometimes we'll do improvising, or play some pop songs. Often I'll teach them how to interpret lead sheets and chord charts, in the hope of giving them something to grab onto in the long term. I believe that many of these kids will regret their decision to quit when they reach adulthood, so giving them something that's more utilitarian is a nice parting gift.

Sometimes there are students for whom none of the above ideas work. They aren't doing a new instrument, don't really like music at all, and maybe don't really like you. I'll try these other ideas, try to give them some enrichment in their final lessons, but we often fall back into what we were doing all along: playing the same piece over and over. There are some kids for whom it seems like the thing they despised the most about learning an instrument becomes their self-inflicted penance. Faced with alternative options, they would rather return to what's familiar. Like Sisyphus being relieved of his boulder only to pick up a job in a rock quarry, I've ended up with students who play the same piece every week for their final month of lessons. There's a poeticism to it for sure, the refining of this piece which represents the height of their piano education but will never be performed. Maybe that's what some students need as they wind down their music lessons.

Every student at some point will enter this faze. No student continues lessons forever. In my own life I've been this student a number of times, often because I was graduating and moving on, but other times because I've just felt it was time to stop taking lessons on some instrument or another. It's a part of every student's cycle and their relationship with a teacher. We get excited about new students, we're thrilled for the ones who do well, and we get frustrated and try to lift the ones who struggle. How will you treat the ones who are at the end of their musical life? Every student you have now will one day be a former student, so it's worth thinking about what you will do with them when they say that they're leaving.

Baby Genius

Babies are real smart. They're smarter than 3 year-olds.

"I don't think that makes sense"

They're always grabbin'! If you gave them stuff to paint with.....they'd do real good.
I seen it on YouTube.