I have known for years that there were massive holes in my musical education. And I’ve been doing my best to try to fill them. You see, despite being exposed to “classical” music at a young age (some of my earliest musical memories are of my 8-years-older sister practising Bach inventions for her Grade 8 RCM exam, for example), studying piano myself, attending concerts with my parents, and hearing their many recordings, I’m embarrassed to admit that some titans of the repertoire somehow entirely escaped my notice. My mother and sisters and I all played, but my parents were not musicians per se, and after giving up lessons at age 15, music didn’t really loom on my radar again until I had a family of my own. And I somehow went to a university that doesn’t even have a music program, a fact that now fills me with disbelief and more than a little regret.
I also didn’t grow up in Toronto. And I never knew anything about Glenn Gould, for example (I know! Literally not one thing), until my forties, when I suddenly realized the extent of my ignorance, and plied my wonderful teacher, Peter Kristian Mose, with questions. (Peter, too, didn’t arrive in Toronto until after Gould was dead, but Gould’s fame coincided, more or less, with his years of study in the US.) I devoured Kevin Bazzana’s 2003 biography, Wondrous Strange, listened to recordings, and pointed out Gould’s childhood home on Southwood Drive to my children every time we passed it on our way to their music lessons.
There are many other examples.
The latest is the Bach Chaconne, the last movement of his Partita no. 2 for violin. My introduction to it came via a Facebook post late last year by Peter, who had been to a performance by violinist Miriam Fried. I went on YouTube to check it out. It is a very dark piece, and I had to let it grow on me. (It’s also fifteen minutes long.)
But grow on me it did, and, as often happens with these things, I started to see references to it everywhere. It has played a pivotal role in the life of James Rhodes, whose stunning 2015 book, Instrumental, I read earlier this year. It led me to listen with a great deal more care and appreciation. Just this month I was tuning a client’s 1921 C. Bechstein grand, and there on the music desk was the Bach Chaconne. (The piece was transcribed for piano by the Italian pianist and composer, Ferruccio Busoni, in 1893.)
The Busoni transcription is daunting, but I decided that no matter how far I got, I had to try to learn this piece myself. So I have recently purchased the Henle edition, and made a start. There is something indescribable about starting to learn to play a piece you love. To hear this incredible music coming out of your own fingers and your own instrument, one faltering bar at a time.
Here’s what Brahms had to say about the Chaconne, in a letter to Clara Schumann: “On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.”
Watching and listening to different artists’ interpretations of the Chaconne is a fascinating exercise. For this piece I have chosen violinist James Ehnes’s 2013 live performance for CBC Music. It strikes me as beautiful, thoughtful, and well-considered. It’s a performance, and a piece, to be savoured. I don’t know how I got this far in life without knowing it.
… though admittedly, Bittersweet Symphony by the Verve (released 20 years ago) has strong classical elements, including the title (obviously) and those amazing strings. Which is probably why I like it so much. I LOVE this song! The lyrics are, admittedly, depressing, but the melody is hypnotic. I was amazed to learn that it was written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Apparently they wrote quite a few songs for other bands.
So here it is again, all “classified.” I like this version too, but I kind of miss Richard Ashcroft’s agonized vocals.
As you may know from my previous posts, last summer I returned to Oslo, Norway for a visit, where I had lived for a few years as an adolescent. Music was a big part of my life there, and particularly the music of Edvard Grieg, Norway’s most famous composer.
Recently I’ve fallen madly in love with Grieg’s Holberg Suite, a group of pieces based on 18th century dance forms (Sarabande, Gavotte, Air, and Rigaudon, and the exciting Prelude), composed in 1884 to pay tribute to the Danish writer, Ludvig Holberg. Since I had only ever heard the string orchestra version, I was surprised to discover that Grieg originally wrote these pieces for piano. When I mentioned this to my friend, the pianist and vocal coach Michael Angell (who knows a great deal about Grieg), he immediately sent me the score from his cellphone! And I’ve been immersed in learning to play these wonderful pieces ever since.
But I have to say, as much as I love playing them, they are really marvellous when played on stringed instruments. There are bits (especially in the Gavotte) that are very reminiscent of Hardanger fiddle music. And of all the performances I’ve seen on YouTube, this one by Camerata Nordica is my favourite. I love the energy of the players, and their symbiotic communication with each other–made possible by the fact that they perform the entire suite from memory! I have heard that this group is now in disarray due to managerial problems, which is a great shame. See also, however, the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra’s performances (also to be found on YouTube), led by the same man, Terje Tønnesen. I defy you not to fall completely in love with this music!
I’ve become fascinated by the new research that shows that music-making stimulates the brain more than any other activity, mental or physical.
Take a look at this lovely little animation created by Dr. Anita Collins, an Australian music educator. Collins also has a wonderful TED-X Talk, which you can view here, that goes into fascinating detail on how our brains — especially young children’s brains — benefit from music.
FMRI studies show the brain’s music-learning centres lighting up when newborn babies hear their mothers’ voices. They are actually hearing music. (Is this why some adults naturally adopt a sing-songy voice when speaking to infants? Quite possibly.) What does this mean? It means that musicality may be innate — i.e. we are all born musical!
Further research has shown that children and adults who study music in a structured way for at least two years have higher IQ’s than those who don’t. Studying music makes you smarter.
Governments and school boards should take note. As Dr. Collins so effectively points out, music education confers lifelong benefits, to individuals and to society as a whole. It should be fostered and protected. Unfortunately, it has been cut from far too many educational systems as an expensive and unnecessary frill. What can we do to change this?
I’m so excited to be resuming piano studies with Peter Kristian Mose later this month — after a 14-year hiatus!
I met Peter around the year 2000. I had bought my rebuilt Heintzman upright the previous year, and was ready to take some lessons again (this time after a 25-year hiatus!). At the time I had two young kids… and after a couple of years studying with Peter, my husband Eric and I had our third child, and piano went to the back burner once again.
Those kids are now 22, 18 and 14! And I am READY to embrace this part of my life again.
Coincidentally, Peter has recently unveiled his new website. You are invited to take a look here. If you’re in the vicinity of Toronto, ON, and if you’ve been toying with the idea of taking piano lessons or are looking for a teacher for your children, I strongly recommend you call Peter up for a chat. You’ll find his contact info on the site.
See you in the studio!
This week I finally went to see The Music of Strangers, the 2015 documentary about the Silk Road Ensemble, the world-fusion band created some years ago by cellist Yo Yo Ma.The music is an enchanting mix of east, west, north and south, classical and jazz… and, understandably, it took some time for the group, and the music, to coalesce.
A former child prodigy, it turns out that the most famous cello player in the world never really felt like the author of his own destiny. (His son reports growing up thinking his dad worked at Boston’s Logan Airport, since he was always going there.) Hence the search for something more than his decades of concert touring, resulting in the Silk Road Ensemble. The group aims to promote cultural awareness and harmony through touring and education initiatives intended to bring comfort and understanding to a hurting world.
When I told my 21-year-old daughter I was going to see the film, she recalled Ma’s appearance in the kids’ animated series Arthur, in which the character D.W. addresses Ma as “Yo Mama!” (I still think Arthur was the best-written children’s show ever made.) Ma also appeared on Mr. Rogers’ Neighbourhood, and the delightful clip is included in the film.
The Music of Strangers also goes into some depth to profile its various members, including Kayhan Kalhor, master of the Persian kamancheh, a stringed instrument played like a cello (though quite different in both appearance and sound). Kalhor is a tragic figure, for whom the plight of his Iranian family and countrymen is etched in the lines on his face. He rarely smiles, and we are happy for him when we learn that he has married… though eventually it is decided that he cannot live in Iran with his bride, and theirs becomes a Skype marriage.
In the film, Kalhor’s sadness is contrasted with the exuberance of Spaniard Cristina Pato, who plays Galician bagpipes. You read that right–bagpipes, from Spain. She is one of only three women in the ensemble of seventeen (really, Yo Yo? that’s all you could find?), but her feminine charisma, shall we say, more than compensates. If you doubt that a woman can look sexy playing the bagpipes, check this out! (One wonders how the men stay focused on their scores.)
Kalhor and Pato and the other ensemble members are all passionate about preserving and furthering their instrument’s heritage, and their association with Ma and ensemble has brought them to world prominence. This video showcases both Pato and Kalhor and gives the flavour of this wonderful mix of artists and musical styles.
All that’s missing is a Hardanger fiddle player.
Another treat from my visit to Oslo this summer was a delightful demonstration of folk dancing accompanied by traditional Norwegian fiddle-playing at the Norsk Folkemuseum.
Having recently started learning to play the fiddle myself, I have become fascinated by the Hardanger fiddle, or hardingfele, which is a thing of stunning beauty, as well as, apparently, being very difficult to learn to play (and quite unlike a regular violin). The women pictured above took turns playing (both expertly) while the other performed a traditional dance with the young man in the trio, who also played two other instruments while the ladies danced.
The hardingfele is usually ornately decorated, with mother of pearl inlay on the fingerboard and tailpiece and black ink designs on the body. In addition to the usual four strings of a violin, there are four or five strings underneath, which resonate in sympathy with the top strings. Many different tunings are used, depending on the region and the requirements of the piece. Much of Grieg’s music is infused with elements of these folk tunes, and according to Wikipedia (my main source of information so far), Grieg wrote pieces for the hardingfele as part of the score for his Peer Gynt suite.
I wasn’t quick enough to capture the mini-presentation on the hardingfele the day I was there, but, fortunately, someone filmed the same young woman demonstrating this remarkable instrument on another occasion, and posted it on YouTube. I invite you to take a look here.
The highlight of my summer was a trip back to Oslo, Norway with my three kids (two teenagers and a 21-year-old), where I lived for four charmed years in the early-1970s. My piano teacher, Hilde Ringlund (pictured above), at the time a student at Norway’s Academy of Music, is now deputy principal of this august institution. And last month we met again for the first time in 42 years! Hilde served us a traditional Norwegian lunch and gave us a tour of this wonderful place, where we also met some of her colleagues.
Hilde was an excellent teacher, and it was wonderful to see her again and to hear about her life. She introduced me to the music of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, which I have loved ever since. Hilde played for us Grieg’s Nocturne, Opus 54 No. 4… and then I sat down to play Halling, Opus 38, No. 4. (Nervy, I know. I couldn’t resist the chance to play a Hamburg Steinway D!)
I’m excited to revive my blog, and I look forward to sharing interesting piano-related content more frequently, starting today, with this fascinating article from Clavier Companion on how piano tone is (and is not) achieved.
Author Chad Twedt explains why esoteric theories about how a pianist can create a richer, subtler tone by, for example, moving his fingers in towards the backs of the keys as s/he plays, are, essentially, nonsense. The truth is, the the pianist can not change the timbre of a note without also affecting its volume. The physics of this are very simple: playing the key harder (i.e. depressing the key faster) sends the hammer to the string more quickly, which produces more volume. And vice versa — playing more softly results in the hammer striking the key more slowly, which produces less volume. Thanks to pianos’ escapement mechanism (also known as “letoff”), the final eighth-of-an-inch that the hammer travels towards the string is achieved under the momentum created by the player, but at that point it’s floating towards the hammer independently of the player’s control. It matters not whether the key is struck at the front or the back. Fascinating stuff!
It reminds me of another piece of piano-related nonsense I heard recently from a professional singer, who tried to tell me that the two outside strings of the 3-string notes in a piano’s high treble are purposely slightly de-tuned to create a “vibrato,” similar to a singer’s vibrato. (He didn’t know that I’m a piano technician. I politely informed him that every tech’s goal is always to tune those three strings in perfect unison!)
Read the article here.
This is a very special piano for the discerning performer. If you know of anyone who may be interested, I invite you to contact me at the contact link above. Thank you!