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Upcoming Performances

October 1, 4:00 pm Eastern
Guest recitalist, First Presbyterian Church, Gainesville, Ga.

October 15, 4:00 pm Eastern
Guest recitalist, First United Methodist Church, Gastonia, N.C.

October 22, 4:00 pm Eastern
Inaugural recitalist, Allen organ, White Bluff United Methodist Church Savannah, Ga.

November 12, 3:00 pm Eastern
Guest recitalist, Charles Town Presbyterian Church, Charles Town, W.V.

February 11
Inaugural recitalist, Casavant organ, Forest Lake Presbyterian Church, Columbia, S.C.

March 9, 2018, 12:15 pm Eastern
Guest recitalist, National City Christian Church, Washington, D.C.

March 11, 2018
Guest recitalist, Waldensian Presbyterian Church, Valdese, N.C.

May 13, 2018, 5:00 pm Eastern
Guest recitalist, First Presbyterian Church, Wilmington, N.C.

Monday
Apr202015

In search of new models, Part I: Models explained

My thinking on some matters has changed. It did not come about gradually; it hit me in an instant, like a rogue baseball.

I’ll begin my explanation with a confession: I have been bitter for years. I have been bitter about not winning that competition (nor that one), not getting that job (nor that one), not being invited to play here (nor there), not being invited to join that roster (nor that one), not being invited to play for that conference (nor that one in my own backyard). I have been bitter about being treated like the hired help here or like a novice there. I have been bitter about the publicity for one of my recordings being completely bungled out of my control.

But one day I partook of the perfect cocktail of a readiness to understand mixed with talking to one person who understands these kinds of things better than anyone else.

In my profession, some things don’t work the way they should. Some things never worked in the first place. Some things have evolved into serving too few people to be of any continuing service to the rest of the community. This series will discuss some disserviceable models in organ/musical-related matters of teaching, job searching, advertising, performing, career management, and conventions.

It’s easy to look around outside our own profession and notice that some things have changed. Flight attendants are no longer respected as the in-flight authorities and well-trained safety agents they have always been. Physicians used to be respected as the final word in a patient’s healthcare. Professors used to be listened to as authorities in their field and as real-world resources; nowadays they are treated as degree dispensers and viewed suspiciously as greedy participants in that radical agenda known as higher education.

Chalk it all up to a loss of respect of authority and crumbling of decent society? Sure. But it’s also not helpful that many of those flight attendants, physicians, and professors are waiting around for things to get better, for things to get back to how they used to be. Waiting is passive and therefore futile. We should do something to command the respect we still deserve, right?

Not so fast. As soon as the professor seeks to instill the old sense of respect in the student by insisting that the student stop being late to class and stop being sloppy with assignments, the student cries persecution to someone in authority. As soon as the physician tells a noncompliant patient, in the old way, to get off his backside and change his own situation, the patient moves on to another doc and spreads the word that Physician A lacks compassion. As soon as the flight attendant enforces the rules with a recalcitrant passenger, she gets labeled as grumpy and unprofessional, and it ends up in some online evaluation (that only the bitter read, apparently).

The old ways appear to be ... old. "Their" model and "our" model may not match up any more.

Well, so now what do we do about it? We need more common ground between old ways and new possibilities. We need more win-wins.

We can seduce people.

Seduce them into doing better. Seduce them into wanting to learn more, into contemplating change, into considering the big picture. Appeal to their passions and not to their waywardness. This series is about passions, serving the greater good, channeling what makes us tick, and helping others do the same.

Undergirding the series will be the idea of changing models. There are some old models of doing things that we would be well served to stop chasing. We can do something new with some of those models, something that seduces an old modeler to join you and move things along more serviceably for many more people. I have no advice for the physician or the flight attendant, but we professors, performers, accompanists, and conductors are in for an even rougher ride if we don’t make some changes ourselves.

The point of examining my bitterness is that I discovered the common ground among all those things that anger me. Once I discovered that my bitterness was coming from mismatched models and goals, the bitterness evaporated instantly and I was able to see things differently and start changing my approaches. My bitterness had been aimed at people, but I realized that every time I revisited an old grudge, I saw that both of us had been chasing a disserviceable model in the first place. The very moment I realized it, I just walked away from the bitterness and started fresh.

Sour grapes? No, more like recognizing my own grapes. Sure, I would have enjoyed achieving some things along the way that I’ve seen others achieve with less effort and sometimes less talent. But it was a most liberating moment when I realized that I wasn’t going to (or wasn’t willing to) achieve some things in the old ways. Real satisfaction in what I’m doing will come more readily when I’m no longer chasing outdated models.

To be continued.

 

Friday
Apr102015

Little-known facts, Part 4: My ecclesiastical history

Born Southern Baptist, Front Street Baptist Church, Statesville, N.C. The organ was a 1971 Greenwood, 9 ranks. But it was a pipe organ!

First organ gig: Supply Organist, First A.R. Presbyterian, Statesville, N.C. The organ was a thrilling (to a young kid in those days) Zimmer. With exposed pipes and everything! In Statesville, N.C.!

First Mass played: Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, 1985 or so, St. Philip the Apostle, Statesville.

First Episcopal Eucharist played: Trinity Church, Statesville, 1983 or so.

First regular church job: Junior year in college, 1988-1989, Crossnore Presbyterian, Crossnore, N.C. Eminent organ.

Next regular church job: Senior year in college, 1989-1990, Boone United Methodist Church, Boone, N.C. Schantz organ, 17 ranks. The largest pipe organ in a church in the county. And I had the keys to the building. I felt like the hottest thing on two legs.

Next: Grad school, 1990-1994: St. John the Divine (Episcopal), Houston. I was the Assistant Organist/Choirmaster to Richard Forrest Woods and then to John Gearhart. I was confirmed there by William Sterling, Bishop Suffragan of Texas. Have been an Episcopalian ever since. Big Wicks organ that played a mighty service on full-ish organ but had no individually lovely sounds on it. It has since been replaced by an enormous Letourneau.

Next: 1994-1995: Interim Organist/Choirmaster, Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit, Houston. Not the happiest time. I felt like Bach returning home from the north and no one knew quite what to make of him. The people and I just didn’t gee-haw very well, and I still don’t know why, but I’m sure it was my fault. Young guy quitting the biggest Episcopal church in town to set out on his own and see what might come along? Yeah, that might be part of it. I also did a bit of battle with tendonitis (Visser-Rowland organ there, as well as a ten-key data entry job to make ends meet), but that was the turning point in my organ playing, because I honed my technique to eliminate the pain. It worked; the pain has never returned, and I did it without medical intervention except Aleve.

Next: 1995-1997: Organist, St. Philip Presbyterian Church. A turning point in my understanding of people, the Church, and myself. One of the most nurturing congregations I have encountered. God love them all. Fort/Visser-Rowland organ, electric action. A rather smooth sound that was oddly endearing. The organ has since been replaced by a perfectly splendid Fritts.

Next: 1997-2004: First Presbyterian, Houston. This was my last church before moving back to N.C. to teach at Appalachian. Also the longest I have served a church (7 years). And so my history there is rich and complicated, but during my time there, I learned a lot about the ins and outs of church politics, air conditioner breakdowns, organ maintenance, choral conducting, and chilling out [not!] over liturgical faux-pas and snafus. I also presided over the most beautiful organs in the state of Texas: Aeolian-Skinner Opp. 912 and 912A.

Next: 2009-2011: First Presbyterian, Lenoir, N.C. Aeolian-Skinner. I left this church because I got too busy on the road, where I really wanted to be anyway. I composed this blog post about my thinking at the time.

Next? Although I joyfully sub around, I have maintained for a few years that I can’t cram regular church service into my teaching and performing schedule any more. But I’m beginning to soften on that stance. Let’s check in with each other on that later.

Monday
Mar302015

Help Yourself XV: Running low

I'm running out of these things! I have been sharing my hymn reharmonizations and other works in this series, for free. Today's offerings are the penultimate posting; the others will appear here in about 20 days.

As with all my works offered in this tagged series called "Free PDFs. Help yourself," you are free to click, print, and use for your own purposes, with my compliments. Since no publisher was interested, I might as well share freely!

AMAZING GRACE with descant

CWM RHONDDA with descant

DARWALLS 148th Dill text, with descant, in D

DARWALLS 148th Wesley text, with descant, in C

 

Friday
Mar202015

Franck-ly speaking, Part X: Choral in A minor

This is the tenth installment in a series on my take on playing the twelve large works of César Franck. Today’s topic is the third Choral in A minor. See the first post in the series for background information.

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This is the last organ solo piece we have from Franck. The popular perception is of him finishing the manuscript on his deathbed. Whether or not that is accurate, we do know that he was fighting an infection and died soon, and we also know that this music is the crowning achievement of Franck’s quest into transforming the organ into a concert instrument capable of playing its own symphonies. This is a profound piece indeed, and there is absolutely no shame in approaching it as a sacred treasure every time you sit down to it.

Of the three Chorals, this one is probably the easiest to play. That’s all relative, you understand; none is truly easy. And everyone will have his own opinion on which Choral speaks to him most deeply. This one speaks to me, if I listen to it through the lens of it being Franck’s final notes written for the organ. But my favorite Choral, indeed my favorite Franck, is the E major.

Measure 1: I would suggest that the opening tempo be determined by how you would like to play measure 30 and following. That is the real Chorale, and perhaps the ideal tempo for that should be transferred to the beginning. More often than not, the beginning is played far too fast, especially in proportion to the rest of the piece. This is neither a toccata nor a cadenza. The piece has something to say in the opening notes, and there might even be a phrase or a nuance or two to be had in this section. Give yourself time for them. And be very precise with the difference in length between sixteenth notes and eighth notes as Franck wrote them.

Measure 5: Metrically speaking, the last note of this measure is very unimportant. Therefore, it destroys the pregnant pause that follows when this note is held even slightly past its value. Other examples are measures 7, 14, 16, 18, 52, 54, and 56. I can tell that a performer is listening to every note (or not), based on their treatment of these cutoffs.

Measures 16 and 18: Notice the fermatas are on rests, not on notes.

Measure 27: Franck initiates the ritard here. Many people start it in 23, but that overblows all these quarter notes starting in 26 and makes the section interminable. Allow Franck’s slower rhythms to be their own slowdown on some level.

Measure 30: One should probably resume tempo here, so that we can discern the melody (which is the real Chorale). Otherwise, it’s just chords.

Measure 39: I take the alto E-flat with the left hand and then use (dead) Pedal to assist with legato on the third beat.

Measures 91-96: Don’t start this section too slowly. It will get tedious and labored otherwise.

Measure 96: The fermata is on the final note of the outgoing registration, not on the first note of the Adagio section. I would make the pickup from 96 into 97 be in your intended tempo.

Measures 97-116: This slow chorale (arguably not the Chorale in this piece) is among the most excerpt-able moments we have from Franck. Be sure the melody notes don’t blur together. If they do, it just makes that Trumpet loud and muddy. Play every note right where it belongs. I would suggest treating this section like Chopin, where there is a general pulse in the background that is stretched and compressed here and there but never loses count. Finally, in too many performances, the player gets stuck on the ties in the melody (96-97, 98, 99-100, 105-106, 107-108, etc). But it is directly on a tied note where the melody needs to regain its momentum after the longer note that precedes it. Listen, listen, listen.

Measures 117-141: This is one of those sections that needs to be “perfect,” plain and simple. Too slow, and it languishes in its repetitiveness. Too fast, and it takes the limelight from what follows it.

Measures 143-145: Don’t speed up. You’ll just have to slow right back down in a moment.

Measure 146: The fermata is on a rest, not on the manual note!

Measure 147: I put my left hand on the Récit to avoid sharing middle C among the hands and breaking eighth notes into two sixteenths. In 153, I bring the left hand back to the Positif.

Measures 147-173: Try entertaining the notion of a subtle accelerando, all the way to 173.

Measure 170: I move the right hand to the Great on beat 3. That’s a safer spot to move that hand accurately, and it doesn’t interrupt the flow into 171 that way.

Measure 173: The registration instructions appear to be aligned with the downbeat in the editions I have used. But I would suggest that that piston be hit on the third beat, to coincide with the first note of the “chorale” climax.

Measures 190-199: Of course, legato with manual octaves is impossible. I feel it is most unfortunate that composers for the organ write full chords or octaves for hands and then mark it all legato. The French are pretty sparing about that; when, say, Widor or Guilmant wrote full octaves and chords, the style was already march-y or heroic, so you knew that it would automatically sound right. But Franck was still experimenting. [The British are utterly notorious for such writing. It’s kind of like playing the organ like a piano that has a broken damper pedal. It drives me insane.] Anyway, there are some options in this section. You could separate the octaves and make them a bit more declamatory. You could jump from octave to octave in a panic trying to lunge for legato (please don’t!). You could leave out some notes, particularly to keep the upper melody legato. I still experiment every time I get to this section. It just depends on what you want to say with the music. How it sounds is most important. Making alterations toward legato would sound completely different from a declamatory broken style. Take your pick. Franck wouldn’t be allowed to complain about your choice, since he marked octaves and full chords legato in the first place!

Finally, I make the ritard in 190 last until the very end. Every note is a wee bit slower than the one before. Such a slowdown is very long, very gradual, and very subtle and requires lots of practicing and lots of listening. Keep the beat or any background pulse you have going. The danger is in overblowing it. We still have to get to the end, you know, so don’t park somewhere when you’re not arrived yet. Think of this like trying to stop an old steam locomotive. You can pull on the brakes, but it won’t stop for a while! You have to pull harder, harder, and it finally slows down, little by little, until completely stopped.

Tuesday
Mar102015

Franck-ly speaking, Part IX: Choral in b minor

This is the ninth installment in a series on my take on playing the twelve large works of César Franck. Today’s topic is the second Choral in B minor. See the first post in the series for background information.

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You may want to fire me for saying this, but this piece sounds better if played in one rather than in three. Yes, Franck indicated 3/4 and marked it Maestoso, but a large beat of 1 can be majestic, too. I’m not advocating for 3/8, but if this piece is too slow, then the recurring theme and its momentum are lost, and there is little glory in things to come later on in the piece. Give it some thought, make the theme move along, and make any accompaniment fit in with that at all times.

Measures 1-32: There are a number of spots where it might help the rhythm and the independence of voices if the hands and feet release notes at different times. For example, in measure 4, the Pedal needs to release the F-sharp in order to re-strike it, but that does not mean the hands should release their note early, as well. Experiment with this sort of thing as you wish. I feel it enhances the independence of the various lines and lends a sense of continuing, rather than bringing everything to a halt just because the primary voice needs a breath.

Measures 8, 10, 12, and similar spots throughout the piece: It is fine to break the main melody for phrasing. (Don’t forget that wall-to-wall legato came around after Franck.) The problem with that occurs when those breaks alter the forward-moving rhythm of the whole theme. Don’t allow any breaks to interfere with the progress of the theme.

Measure 24: I don’t repeat the F-sharp in the right hand.

Measures 27-28: I play the bass notes in the Pedal (no Pedal stops on), to assist with legato.

Measures 33-39: Here is another example of what I’m talking about by playing the piece in a feeling of one rather than three. Most folks make a huge, emotive deal out of the eighth notes and eighth rests in the manuals in these measures. But the melody is in the Pedal here, and it has its own ideas of how things should be paced. Pay attention to the melody, and stop setting up camp on the eighth rests in the manuals. Keep things moving; use the shape of the melody to inform all other voices.

Measures 41-48: Again, the melody needs to move and to rule. Although the accompaniment here is difficult to play, it must move along in service to the melody. Transfer your ears’ allegiance to the theme, and the piece suddenly comes together.

Measures 49-64. Same comments. Melody, melody, melody.

Measure 64: I have always found that moment strange the way Franck wrote it, and so I “fix” it by playing the third beat in the Pedal an octave higher. I also don’t make a huge break into 65; I use the eighth notes of the third beat to carry us into the next theme. Seamlessness is a good thing.

Measures 65-80: I know it’s tempting, but this section should not go slower. Don’t forget that this theme will be combined with the main theme later on, and so it should follow the contour of the main theme, even if not present.

Measures 80-114: This begins a “development” of sorts, as it were. The main theme is not present, so now you may emote and mess around with rhythm and tempo!

Measure 114: Most people put the brakes on hard here. I put the brakes on, but I start much earlier, to make it a more subtle ritard that leads smoothly into 115.

Measures 115-126: This is the true Chorale, hiding in this little section and in its companion section at the very end of the piece. Don’t hurry through it, and remember that it is subtle and will not survive attempts to turn it into a major event.

Same section: No 32-foot? Play the Pedal an octave lower (except the low Bs, of course). That’s one option. Another option is to play 115-118 an octave lower, then move to the tenor octave in 119. That will prevent the chromatic descent in the Pedal from being displaced an octave when the B comes along in 120. Now, to move to the tenor octave in 119, I play the first beat on low D (continuing 8vb from 115), then add a quarter note on the second beat on tenor D. It’s only one note so subtle and unexpected that few people will hear the difference. No one will run you out of town for it. Again, both of these options just described are useful only if the organ doesn’t have a 32-foot flue, or if the 32-foot flue it does have is too heavy or too quint-y.

Measures 119-122: Notice Franck’s quoting of his own melody from the first movement of his Symphony (for orchestra). That can’t be an accident!

Measures 131-135 and 142-147: I wouldn’t go too slowly here. This needs to be looking ahead to the gloriousness to come. In both sections, you can make some interesting decisions on what to tie, what to make legato, and what to detach. Use your own judgment – it’s probably right. I also couple the manuals to (dead) Pedal to assist with legato in 133-135 and 145-147.

Measures 148 and following: This is the "fugue," if you insist on finding one. Franck says we can move this along a bit. In any event, the “development” is over, and it’s time to get back to having the main theme call the metrical shots.

Measure 149: This is one of those maddening moments in organ music: Should we break that G in the melody to hear the eighth-note motion in the accompanying voice? In most cases, when we encounter a moment like this, we can make a decision based on the acoustics, the organ, or anything else. But I have discovered that if played all on one manual, this spot never sounds good, no matter what. My solution is to start at 148 with the right hand on the main manual and the left on another similarly-registered manual not coupled. Then bring the left hand to the main manual during the rest in 156.

Measures 162-194: You’ll drive yourself crazy trying to decide when to tie, when to break, and when to play legato. But it’s worth the trouble. Work things out, and write them in. In some cases, you’ll want to break more notes in a warm acoustic. But always make a decision that serves the rhythm and meter. If too many notes break, we hear an “event.” If not enough notes break, we lose the eighth-note motion.

Measures 182 and 186: I use (dead) Pedal to assist with legato.

Measure 187: Many people ritard here, but again, since it’s in the middle of a statement of the main theme, it should follow the same contour the melody has maintained all along. Listen with all your might to the main theme throughout this entire piece, and the piece will then assemble itself into a very clean structure that needs little help from you otherwise.

Measure 188: I move to a somewhat louder registration here.

Measures 195-226: The themes are finally combined. There is nothing you can do to make that clear to your audience, especially to first-time listeners. So just play it, no slower, and obey the contour of the main theme (in the Pedal) for phrasing.

Measures 209-210: The soprano tie across the barline between these two measures is a mystery to me. It doesn't appear in sister sections (79-80 and 225-226), so I'm taking it out!

Measures 211-226: There’s that pesky main theme calling the shots again. I can’t overemphasize that approach to structuring the phrasing. Although the upper voice appears to have more emotive potential, it absolutely cannot be allowed to derail the main theme (Pedal), just because it “wants a moment!”

Measure 222: After much discussion with myself, I decided to change a note. (Quelle horreur!) Compare the left hand in 222 with the left hand in 206. If 222 goes as written, then there would be parallel octave motion between the second tenor and the Pedal. I "fix" that in 222 by changing the second tenor third beat to an E, to match the voice leading in 206. Now, Franck does indulge in parallel fifths all the time (measures 96 and 104 in this piece, plus plenty in other pieces), but notice how this section (195-226) is absolutely pure in its five-voice texture -- it is some of the richest writing we have from Franck, because it is so pure in its voice leading. Hence my suggested change (well, that, and making the notes identical from statement to statement is easier to memorize, too!).

Measure 257: Some ritard is good, but too much will spoil the chromatic tension here. You need to arrive at 258, not get stuck in 257.

Measures 258-272: Of course, we can go slower and grander here. But that melody is still in charge – use it to determine the flow of things.

Measures 266-269: It is possible to play both octaves of the Pedal legato. Pedaling for the Bs to the F#s is straightforward. The Gs to the Ds may be pedaled LF o^, RF ^o (toes pointed out, not parallel). Loosen up those ankles and give it a try!

Measure 270: Franck’s Molto rall. is not kidding. You’ll need it to keep 273 from taking off before you were finished with the main theme.

Measure 273 leads into 274. Try not to take a huge break to hit a piston. Try to keep it all flowing, one idea to the other.

Measures 274-285: Same comments as for 115-126.

Measures 285-end: I solo out the eighth notes. In 287, I span my left hand across two manuals, playing the low B on the eighth-note manual and the tenor F-sharp on the Swell. I transfer the low B to the Swell in the very last measure; it helps to make further decrescendo.

Measures 287-288: The Pedal will disappear on the low Bs if you don’t have some independent 8-foot stops drawn. Listen carefully there, and if you do choose to make a registrational adjustment, make them from 274 on.

This piece has always been with me. I learned it in college, one of my teachers recorded it, and the other one claimed to have played it “when God was a child.” Although it is mostly quarter notes and eighth notes, it is hard to play and to play well. Approach it with love and care and with ears listening in the right places.

Saturday
Feb282015

Help Yourself XIV: Places to visit

Here are five more of my re-harmonizations, tunes for which are named for places.

As with all the files available in this tagged series called "Free PDFs: help yourself," click, print, and use freely, with my compliments!

AUSTRIA with descant

DUKE STREET with descant

EISENACH

MADRID with descant

NICAEA with descant

Tuesday
Feb172015

To tail or not to tail

A friend’s Facebook post has started a discussion on the fate of white tie and tails among organists. The friend was asking if he should move away from white tie for his performances, since one so rarely sees white tie any more. He is a self professed “friendly curmudgeon and somewhat old-fashioned crank,” and so he does not take this new idea lightly. The responses he has gotten have leaned toward “keep wearing tails at all costs.” The reasons given, though not always stated, are things like ‘it looks good,’ ‘it’s more proper,’ ‘I just love it,’ etc. But none of those gets to the root of the etiquette, which is where my friendly curmudgeonly friend must suspect something is going on, or he wouldn’t have asked in the first place.

Before I proceed, we should clear up some terminology. White tie and tails go together. Saying “tails” assumes “white tie,” and vice versa. Black tie does not belong with tails. Neither does a black vest. It must be a white waistcoat. There.

Now, what has happened to white tie? Music lovers still see it all the time in symphony orchestras (sometimes mismatched with black vest or black tie with tailcoat). People who attend organ recitals played by men from the major concert artist rosters still see it fairly regularly. That's about all I can come up with right now.

White tie has faded from view in other places. During my graduate school days, my teacher spoke of white tie tending to be more proper for concerto appearances and little else. Even he was moving toward more black tie in his performances, and in his final years, he was wearing a white silk pullover with tux outerwear. Many solo performers and conductors have opted out of white tie to be more comfortable (poor reason to disregard etiquette). Some have opted to give themselves a “look” (just like everyone else, apparently). And let’s not even get started on what proms and weddings have done to fashion etiquette and good sense. As for me, I have worn white tie exactly ONCE since 1996, and it was just last year.

I believe the lust after white tie as a look is no longer relevant; we have to address why it came along in the first place and why it appears to be going away. I would offer a simple rule I learned years ago, which is always to dress one notch above your audience. If they are in white tie, then you should be, too. If they are in black tie, then you should be in white tie. If they are in business suits, then you should be in black tie. If they are more casual, then you should be in a suit.

I believe showing up in white tie to play a recital for people who are in jeans and t-shirts is as awkward as showing up in jeans and t-shirt (or even white tie!) at the business-casual office party. Fashion etiquette has always required us to keep an eye on where we are and whom we are among. Since society has changed, so must we, which just might mean a re-thinking of “white-tie-just-because-I-like-it-screw-everyone-else” mentality. Just as most of society has dressed down in an effort to thumb a nose at the Establishment, it is possible for us clotheshorses to dress the other direction for the same reason. Common ground might need to be established, even if it’s not much respected on either side.

White tie lovers, I feel your pain, but I have made more friends for myself and for the organ by staying only one or two rungs above the local dress code, rather than standing on top of the whole ladder!

Sunday
Feb082015

Help Yourself XIII: Earth tones

Here are three more of my re-harmonizations. The texts for these tunes deal at some point with earthly beauty. As with all the files available in this tagged series called "Free PDFs: help yourself," click, print, and use freely, with my compliments.

DIX

LAUDES DOMINI in B-flat, with descant, two texts

LAUDES DOMINI in C, with descant, two texts

TERRA BEATA with descant

Thursday
Jan292015

Franck-ly speaking, Part VIII: Fantaisie in A

This is the eighth installment in a series on my take on playing the twelve large works of César Franck. Today’s topic is the Fantaisie in A. See the first post in the series for background information.

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Measures 1-8 and 13-20: No need to play the left hand, since everything is coupled to the Pedal. You could split the right-hand part among the hands so that the right hand does not have to work so hard to position itself in the lower tenor range.

Measures 1-8 and 13-20: It is compelling to break at the phrase marks, and I do so throughout the piece. (Don’t forget that wall-to-wall legato was an idea that came along just after Franck.) Any breaks have to be executed carefully so that they sound neither like coffee breaks nor panic moments. Compare this with the all-legato approach for, say, the Prière.

Measure 28: I take the lower E with the Pedal (no Pedal stops on), just to preserve all the legato I can.

Measure 34: Ditto for the low A. That means needing a piston for 35.

Measure 40: See those hairpins? I insert them in 36 and 38, as well.

Measure 51: I “thumb” the E in the left hand with the right to preserve legato.

Measure 59: I “thumb” the high A in the left hand with the right to preserve legato.

Measure 84: I “thumb” the A in the left hand with the right to preserve legato. It’s a stretch!

Measure 86 and following: Now we get into the dangers of turning fermatas into events. Franck is exploring form, fantasy, and improvisatory effects. But if we go out for a burger on each and every fermata, then the piece grinds to a halt at every turn, and the emotional impact is lost. I recommend deciding which fermatas are worth some extra time and which are worth barely more than a breath. For example, I don’t hold the fermatas very long in 86, 88, 90, 95, and 98. Even though those measures are pausing for “punctuation,” they are still “telling a story” that needs to go on. Commas, not exclamation marks. In contrast, see 101 below.

I reduce registrations little by little at 87, 96 and 99. I feel this makes a smoother transition down to the voix humaine. And while I observe the fermata in 98, I go into 99 without breaking. I just like that effect, especially if the boxes are capable of closing things down to nothing.

Measure 101: Now THERE is a fermata worth sitting on for some extra time (but not all day). That’s a major seam before introducing the voix humaine theme.

Measure 102: No voix humaine on your instrument? I’m not surprised. Welcome to America. But sorry, the voix celeste is not a suitable substitute. It is often used as a substitute just because it contains the word voix in its name, which is a worse transgression than using it as a substitute in the first place. However: once you get past the “rules” of registering in the French manner, you may start experimenting with registering this section in the absence of any necessary stops. I’ll make a long story short: when faced with no voix humaine, I do use the celeste, but without the string, and add the 4’ flute and the tremulant. That lends an air of mystery to the sound, and it’s probably not a combination that has been heard on a given organ. If the organ is well voiced, I have discovered that this can elicit an audible gasp from an astute audience.

Measures 119 and 121: Notice there are no fermatas like there were in 88 and 90.

Measures 118-132: I do here what I did in 87-101 with fermatas and registration.

Measures 161-162: There are no fermatas there. I go right on without breaking, after some healthy Molto rall.

Measures 165-166: I keep the uppermost note legato. For whatever reason. Same thing in 175-176.

Measure 167: There is no fermata there. Neither is there one in 177. Keep going, and in the “Poco animato” tempo, not the “1º Tempo.”

Measures 170-171: Before this section begins, I have cancelled the Pedal and added only the Récit coupler to it. I play in the Pedal the last two notes of the right hand in 170 and the first note of the right hand from 171. That achieves complete legato. But look at that final D – the Pedal already has that note, but the Pedal will need its stops back on for that note as Franck wrote it. So I also hit a Pedal divisional piston in time for that note, and then hit a General to bring everything back on for 172. This sounds like a lot of trouble, but if you have the pistons and the stomach for all these little details, then we have the technology.

Measures 197-198: I don’t pause or break before 198. Ritard, yes. Stop or break, no. I feel the swell of sound is more effective if we use all that endless wind the organ can use!

Measures 198-213: Franck’s Très largement will have to be gradually (and subtly) sped back up in time for 214, if you want 214 to match the tempo of 47. That is an approach I take; I feel the two themes require different tempos. Or perhaps more accurately, I feel that the theme at 214 is not as effective if it’s slow; those punching triplets suggest a bit of a driving sense to me.

Measures 213-214: I take the final three eighth notes from the left hand with the right. That prepares a smoother move for the left hand to the Positif. Since I’m retaining two voices in the right hand on the Great there, I also “complete” the lower voice by adding an alto A in the right hand on the downbeat of 214, then I release it, and it is then present on the Positif when the left hand arrives there.

Measure 218: I “thumb” the left hand E with the right. Same thing with the left-hand alto A in 226.

Measures 258 and 260: I reduce a bit. I like to use the entire section as a long cool-down.

Measures 275-276: It’s hard to get a quiet-but-French sound here. I just go to whatever stops are quieter than 274 was. I tie everything from 275-276.

I often get asked the question, “What’s your favorite piece?” I usually respond truthfully by saying, “Whatever I’m working on at the time.” Although the Franck E Major Choral is my favorite Franck, the A Major Fantaisie runs a close second. The E Major thrills me most, but the A Major haunts my ear.

Monday
Jan192015

Growing up

Tell me again: when was I supposed to grow up?

For my entire career, I have been doing for pay what I was doing as early as grade school: playing keyboards. At what point was I supposed to transition from being a wunderkind into being a professional? At what point does your typical prodigy transition into being just another performer, if not just another great performer?

When was I supposed to go from being clueless to being respected in the field? It’s really scary to recall that during my work at a certain church, I was thrust into the leadership due to the boss’s illness. We made it just fine, and I didn’t feel any different then, but I am horrified today to think what my immaturity and inexperience might have done.

I did not feel one bit smarter when I turned in my dissertation. I did not feel one bit relieved when I released the final chord of my final doctoral recital. I did not feel one bit more degreed when I got hooded. And I have never been taken by surprise when anyone addresses me Dr. Bell.

I am teaching in the same building where I was an undergraduate student. Sometimes I have to reflect on my past and my present to remind myself that I am no longer a student in that building. (Maybe that's why I grew a beard and wear a coat and tie to work.) I still feel energized in that building, just as I always did. I don’t feel any different now vs. then, but I see external evidence that I’m now making a difference and an impression, which helps when I lapse into kid mode and feel that no one will take me seriously unless I yell and scream.

I don’t need my students to love me in order to make me a good teacher. I just need them to do what I teach them to do, at least until they graduate. I don’t need to win a teaching award to know that I’m doing good work. (Good thing, because I haven’t won a teaching award and probably never will. I just don’t teach enough students directly to generate votes among the student body.) Tenure and promotion are designed to reward good teaching and retain good faculty. But if I may put those under a microscope, isn’t it reasonable to conclude that I became a good teacher at some point before the hiring committee decided I was a good teacher? And that I was a good teacher before the tenure/promotion committee decided I was a good teacher? I did not feel one bit different when my tenure and promotion were approved, nor when they actually went into effect, nor when I saw the raise in my paycheck. My art and my work ethic didn’t change when those things did.

There is deeper therapy to be explored here. At what point was I supposed to stop being a good little boy? My rebellion wasn't much -- it consisted of playing the organ rather than the piano, attending grad school in Texas rather than in North Carolina, joining and leading an Episcopal church rather than a Southern Baptist one, and establishing family and friends among gay people.

Though our statuses rise and change, we are much the same person we were way back when. Now, just as then, there are still accolades and approvals some of us crave, yea even need, to continue doing what we’re doing. I can’t work in the pragmatic vacuum I have discussed here today. I need human interaction and human approval. Therefore, yes, I do need students to love me. I do need audiences to celebrate my work. I do need presenters to keep calling me. I do need committees to consider me worthy. I do need (or at least want) pastors and conductors to acknowledge me as an expert, rather than as hired help.

To many, I am da man. To myself, I am often merely the same man. To those who seek an organist or organ teacher, I am their man. As a boy, I wanted to be a man. As a man, I sometimes miss boyhood. I think I’ll just continue being Joby the organist and good man, if it’s all the same to you. If you’d like to give me an award for any of that, I’ll gladly accept it and proudly display it. But otherwise, I’m still practicing my notes, teaching my students, and continuing to grow up.