Great stuff here. Thanks to Matt for the link.
June 14, 2015
November 14, 2014
Okay, listen up, performers in all venues. Sing, Theater, public speaking. Anybody with an audience, really. This is a bit long but it communicates something I’ve always wanted to say. If you don’t have an “audience” then you can skip this. But in one way or another most of us do. I think this can help.
When I talk about the level of planning and execution that it takes to work at a really high level, this is the kind of thing I’m talking about. Take four minutes and watch this amazing performance (h/t Matt for the link). Pay attention to his execution, misdirection (watch what he wants you to watch, then rewind and watch what he _doesn’t_ want you to watch). Then keep reading.
This performance represents hours and hours and hours of patient, slow, methodical practice. Every movement is thought out and carefully crafted. What you’re seeing looks spontaneous and natural, but every twitch, gesture, and facial expression is being executed purely on muscle memory. He’s probably done this sequence of actions five thousand times. And no, that’s likely not an exaggeration.
THIS is the kind of thing I always have in mind while planning a show. You have to think on several levels. What levels? I’m glad you asked:
1. Emotional/Entertainment (highest level): what is your purpose? Not just moment-to-moment, but overall. What do you want to leave the audience with? A feeling of awe? Of sadness? Of quiet reflection? Of anger? Of joy? Each of these is a legitimate goal depending on your purpose. But you will never be able to communicate what you’re trying to say unless you _define_ what you’re trying to say. And saying “we want it to be good/awesome/amazing” isn’t enough. You have to define exactly where the target is or you’ll never know if you hit it. There’s a difference between the emotion you feel during the last scene of Schindler’s List (Liam Neeson standing by Schindler’s grave) and the final image of Monster’s Inc (“Kitty!”). But you can be sure that each of those moments was chosen as a goal. An end-state. And the emotion that you felt as an audience member was carefully crafted and manipulated within you so that when that moment came you were able to experience it clearly. “Manipulated” in this case isn’t a bad thing. There’s an implicit agreement among creators and audience members that this sort of manipulation is okay. I like getting emotional at movies. It’s okay if I’m in on it. Often it’s so easy to lose sight of your target because you get lost in the details. Keeping your goal in mind is always, always, always the #1 thing.
2. Structural: this is the second level of execution. What are the structural elements required to reach your emotional end-state goal? Why is doing that movement or gesture or motion better than that one? This kind of knowledge and understanding comes with experience. With seeing a lot of things that don’t work and then trying something else and something else and something else until you figure out what does and then putting that thing that does work in your bag of tools to use later. With enough time, your bag of tools gets big enough that you can start to see commonalities when presented with a problem to solve. Even better, you start to see connections between things that you never thought existed and can reach into your experience and solve a problem in a unique way. Your bag of tools will look different from mine and that’s okay. This is called personal style, and is a reflection of the particular experience we’ve each been through. However, the accumulation of these tools represents a common language that we all speak, even if we’re not aware of it. Being cognizant of the tools turns you from emotional consumer into experience creator. In our culture that’s a powerful place to be.
So the structural level supports the emotional/entertainment goals (everything supports the emotional/entertainment goals). Just doing the song/move/moment/whatever in a vacuum may be cool, but you have to attach it to an overall scaffolding of elements that builds to a goal in order for the moments to be meaningful. This, in my experience, is where most people lose sight of the bigger picture when putting together a project. They often think that just putting flashy stuff in will be enough. But you need the meatier elements to be present so that the entire thing has substance. In the case of my own work, placing the cool Sing move at a certain point can be neat and make the audience yell, but putting it in a specific spot for the right reason, with the right timing, can absolutely drive the moment home. Having an amazing opening stage image relate to a relevant and focussed closing stage image (even if it’s a “YEAH!” jazz-hands moment) shows craftsmanship and forethought. It looks polished and professional.
In whatever you do, always think about each structural element and how it contributes to the larger picture. Flying buttresses are an important innovation, but people travel to Notre Dame cathedral to see the gorgeous Rose window.
Yet the window could not exist without the supports.
3. Physical (lowest level): Finally there is the physical level. Also known as “ya gotta have the moves”. Once levels 1 and 2 are nailed down, level 3 thinking means doing like this guy in the video and practicing, practicing, practicing. Every movement and gesture. Polishing until they’re all perfect, lead naturally into each other, and contribute together to build a structure that supports the overall emotion. If you don’t execute this level then the whole thing can either look amateurish or come crashing down. So get this part right. Don’t practice until you get it right, practice until you can’t get it wrong. And communicate this ethos to your participants. They need to know that the goal isn’t just good execution of the physical level, but good execution of the physical level in order to support the structural and emotional levels.
An audience’s time is one of the most precious things a performer can ask for. When 2000 people trust you with four hours of their time you become responsible for almost a year of irreplaceable human experience. Treat that sacrifice with planning, respect, humility, and (above all) practice and they’ll return your investment with attention and appreciation.
And somewhere, in all of that, everybody can be changed.
July 8, 2014
“You can put just about anything in front of them and the players will make sense of it. You can over- or under-notate, go out of range or forget that people need to breathe and nothing bad will happen. Like magic, it gets sorted out. This is both good and bad. Good in that the players make it work, but bad in that unless you ask, the best players will not tell you what they have done to make it work. You will never know that they divided that double stop, split a line up between two people, or did not need to be told to ‘breathe when needed’ on a whole page of unbroken quavers (there is really no choice). It is not their job to school us; they play and take pride in making it work. In order to learn what’s going on, you have to be proactive and ask your players. It is very easy to go through life doing redundant or incorrect things and never realizing the fact.”
Great website full of notation philosophy, tricks, and general discussion.
I’m doing some notation work right now for Kurt Kaiser. It always strikes me how much psychology is involved. It’s not just where the page turns are and how big the notes are, but subtle little things you never really think about until you’re the one making the decision. Where does that marking go? Why? What font/size? What about whitespace on the page? What’s the reasoning behind your page numbering scheme? How do you want to use word extensions to communicate intent?
The copyist works with the composer’s intent in a hundred subtle but vital ways. Music notation is such a fascinating and deep art. I love it!
April 15, 2014
April 9, 2014
April 8, 2014
“Ten world-class soloists put costly Stradivarius violins and new, cheaper ones to a blind scientific test. The results may seem off-key to musicians and collectors, but the new instruments won handily. When the lights were dimmed and the musicians donned dark glasses, the soloists’ top choice out of a dozen old and new violins tested was by far a new one. So was the second choice, according to a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Of the six old violins tested, five were by made by the famous Stradivari family in the 17th and 18th centuries. The newer violins were about 100 times cheaper, said study co-author Joseph Curtin, a Michigan violin maker. But the Strads and other older Italian violins have long been considered superior, even almost magical. The idea was to unlock ‘the secrets of Stradivari,’ the study said.”
April 3, 2014
The Amen beat and its repercussions for copyright. A really interesting 18:00 piece if you have time for it.
March 23, 2014
A few years ago I embarked on a self-imposed assignment to write a short piano and orchestra piece in the style of Mozart. Why? No real reason other than to scratch an artistic itch. I’ve always adored the piano concerti of Mozart ever since I studied K.488 in A Major in college at Baylor twenty five years ago. I wrote a pretty extensive term paper on K. 488 and once I got my head inside it, loved it even more. It’s playful, joyful, and lighthearted. At times serious and at times childlike. Everything I love about music.
So I set out to use the style and general form of the concerto and compose something completely original, but in only one movement (hence “concertino instead of concerto“. It’s a “mini-concerto”). The form doesn’t prevent me from adding a second and third movement someday (which I’m increasingly being pulled into, I think), but it also lets it just stand on its own without structurally needing anything else.
The piece sat fallow on my hard drive for years until my friend Scott recently sent me something he had written. This encouraged me to revive the piece and complete it. It has completely taken over my life this past week. I probably spent 30-40 hours writing it and another 25 hours getting the score in shape and then recording each of the individual parts using my high end Logic East/West orchestral samples. It’s not as easy as just playing the parts in, however. When you hear, say, the oboe part shift from long held notes to short staccato to more emphatic phrases you’re actually hearing a subtle layering of many different oboe samples, each crossfaded (sometimes on a note-by-note basis) to get as authentic an oboe sound as MIDI instruments can currently achieve. Multiply that for all the instruments and you get an idea for the amount of tweaking involved. It would be a lot easier to have a live orchestra play it, but this way I’m able to do it for basically free (well, with only time invested) instead of paying the thousands of dollars it would cost to hire an orchestra.
So here, friends, is the result. My Concertino #1 for Piano. This YouTube video includes the score so you can follow along (full screen recommended. Also hi-def selected in the bottom right corner). It can be quite revealing to see what the music is doing as it winds around and inside of itself on its journey.
I’m very proud of this little five minute piece. I hope you like it.
Dedicated to my wife and best friend, because have you met her? 🙂
March 19, 2014
My friend Scott recently sent me an original composition for Drum Corps that he’s been working on. Really great stuff and I was impressed with his ability to handle the various sonorities of that type of group so adeptly. In listening to his piece I was reminded of an old exercise I put myself through about 15 years ago. I set out to write a piece in the style of Mozart but allow myself some freedom when it came to harmonies. I haven’t listened to it in a decade and a half. It’s been sitting as a Finale file on my hard drive since then. Well, as a result of another insomnia night last night and very early morning, I broke open that file and re-listened to it and I have to say I’m very happy with the results. Of course, that was with Finale playing it in all its computerish glory. Identical note velocities, exact rhythm, absolutely abysmal musicality etc. No “human” feel to it at all. But still, I’m really happy with the raw material.
So I’ve decided to format and print the thing (currently around 800 measures) and have a go at playing each part into Logic using vastly updated and more professional sounds. I’d like to get it all nice sounding and post it to YouTube or here on the blog. Anybody interested and I’ll send you a PDF of the score. Just a fun little piece I did over a few days that I feel like I should actually get out into the world.
February 25, 2014
February 16, 2014
Meet The Sound System So Loud, It Can Kill You: “Housed in the ESTEC Test centre, a bunker in the Netherlands, the enormous contraption shoots nitrogen through its enormous horn speaker and produces enough noise to permanently deafen anyone foolish enough to hear it. The ESA also claims that no human can survive listening to the sound produced when Leaf is turned up to its maximum volume.”
January 23, 2014
“Classical music has been circling the drain for years, of course. There’s little doubt as to the causes: the fingernail grip of old music in a culture that venerates the new; new classical music that, in the words of Kingsley Amis, has about as much chance of public acceptance as pedophilia; formats like opera that are extraordinarily expensive to stage; and an audience that remains overwhelmingly old and white in an America that’s increasingly neither. Don’t forget the attacks on arts education, the Internet-driven democratization of cultural opinion, and the classical trappings—fancy clothes, incomprehensible program notes, an omerta-caliber code of audience silence—that never sit quite right in the homeland of popular culture.”
January 6, 2014
Everything you always wanted to know about music theory. Well, at least everything you’re probably ever going to need. In Theory V in college we got into Shenkerian Analysis and other 20th century arcana that I’ve always thought of as an unnecessary analysis imposed from the outside. Outside of extended theory classes and dead 20th Century composers, not too many people still use that silliness. Gratefully forgotten.
Still, the YouTube classes listed above are a great place to start if you want a clear and step-by-step introduction to real music theory. It goes fairly deep, too– probably covers 99.9% of popular, non-symphonic/movie music nowadays.
Plus, it’s narrated in a dulcet British accent, so there’s that.
December 13, 2013
“ACMS Gift Boutique Still looking for that perfect stocking stuffer? Or maybe a special way to commemorate that perfect performance? Stop by our brand new gift boutique and see what magic catches your eye! Handmade by a local Austin artist specifically for the Armstrong Community Music School, these items feature genuine Czech crystal, laser engravings, and birch wood. All proceeds benefit ACMS programs.”
Erin and I have been working on these items for her work for a couple of months and are proud to finally introduce them! They’ve been a big hit at her school.
December 6, 2013
December 1, 2013
Kim Strassel: Piano Sonata in FTC Minor – WSJ.com: “With a dozen employees and a $2 million budget, the group doesn’t have ‘the resources to fight the federal government,’ Mr. Ingle says. The board immediately removed the provision from its code, but the MTNA staff still had to devote months compiling thousands of documents demanded by the agency, some going back 20 years: reports, the organization’s magazines, everything Mr. Ingle had ever written that touched on the code. Mr. Ingle estimates he has spent ‘hundreds upon hundreds’ of hours since March complying with this federal colonoscopy…..
While this abuse of power has received no national attention, it has riled the music community. Brian Majeski, the editor of the journal Music Trades, lambasted the FTC in a December editorial, noting that “a consumer watchdog that sees piano teachers as a threat either has too much time on its hands, or badly misplaced priorities.” “
read the whole thing
November 22, 2013
In The Heat Of The Foundry, Steinway Piano ‘Hearts’ Are Made : NPR: “Hensley and Houseman guide the ladle, suspended from a system of overhead beams, out to the foundry floor, where the plate molds are lined up. The molds are made of chemically treated sand, which hardens quickly around a form that is then removed, leaving a hollow space inside. The ladle hovers over each mold in turn and tilts. A stream appears and descends into a hole left in the sand. The iron is more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit and incandescent, a luminous yellow-orange.”
September 24, 2013
Why is it that when you’re self employed the work comes in these strange waves? I’ve been doing this for over 20 years now and I’ve noticed that I either have very little to do or I’m bursting at the seams with work. And it’s not just the same kind of work. Between arranging, writing original music, woodworking projects, audio editing gigs, and now a huge transcription project (reconnecting with my old friend and musician Kurt Kaiser).
It’s feast and famine but for now at least my mother and father will be happy that we won’t be going hungry for a while. 🙂
September 22, 2013
Rick Robinson: What You Should Have Been Looking At While Miley Was Twerking: “Someday in the not-too-distant future, a music writer will author a coffee table book entitled August, 2013, remembering this moment in time as pivotal in the history of pop culture. Glossy pictures of a misunderstood female performer will adorn slick pages filled with lofty praise in tribute to the shift she caused in the paradigm of performance art.
The book will not be about Miley Cyrus’s twerking (for us old rockers, read: dry humping), or what she did with a foam index finger at the annual MTV Music Awards. Instead, the book will highlight the life and horrendous death of singer Hyon Sung-wol.
A South Korean Newspaper reported that this week North Korea’s communist dictator, Kim Jong-un, executed a dozen members of the Unhasu Orchestra – including Jong-un’s former girlfriend, singer Hyon Sung-wol – as their relatives and musicians from three other pop bands were forced to watch. Following the firing squad, the on-lookers were all sent to concentration camps.
Didn’t catch that story on Entertainment Tonight?
Which is why the public’s obsession with Miley Cyrus’ twerking instead of Hyon Sung-wol’s assassination may say more about us than it does about the teen idol formerly known to Disney Channel viewers as Hannah Montana.”
Read the whole thing