Monthly Archives: December 2009

Improv Everywhere: Guerrilla Handbell Strikeforce

Ah, it’s the holiday season and I can’t stop posting.  I love Improv Everywhere.  And I find it hard to get to feel too negative about the Salvation Army bell ringers, even though the Army itself has notoriously anti-gay hiring policies.  In any event, a great video:


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Who says there’s no “Sanity Clause”?

Andrew Sullivan gave Paul Krugman a “Best Pun in a Long Time” award for this line (discussing Republicans, in the sixth paragraph): “No, Virginia, at this point there is no sanity clause.”  (Emphasis Andrew’s.) An alert reader pointed out that “sanity clause” is from the classic Marx Brothers movie, A Night at the Opera. The entire “contract scene” is worth watching.

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If he played the cello,

I bet this guy would be a super-accurate shifter:

I had no idea tape measures could be so much fun.

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Grading papers

. . . is hard work, in case you’ve ever wondered.  I just spent an over an hour writing comments on just one.  Fourteen more to go.  The more problematic the paper, the more labor-intensive it is to evaluate, comment on, and grade.  Since I teach mostly applied music, it’s been a while since I was confronted by a stack of term papers written by first-year students.  These days it’s actually an inbox full of papers, since I had the students submit them electronically, both to save paper and so I could try using the “insert comment” feature in MSWord.

My next-door neighbor teaches philosophy.  My paper-grading workload is nothing compared to his.

I wonder how many people outside academia realize how many hours a conscientious college professor spends on grading papers and essay exams.  If you do a good job, it takes forever. The energy to do it comes from care, commitment, and a sense of mission.  I could have given the paper I just read a B- and written a few comments in 5 or 10 minutes.  How much would that have helped the student learn?

I’m not writing to pat myself on the back, because I have it easy with just sixteen papers.  This process does, however, fill me with a sense of awe at what my liberal-arts colleagues do day in and day out.


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At the Midwest Clinic

I’m in Chicago (where it’s been in the 20s but, thankfully, the “Windy City” hasn’t been windy), attending the Midwest [Band and Orchestra] Clinic.  I gave a presentation yesterday on cello technique basis. If you’re finding your way here for the first time because you were there, welcome!

I’ll be posting a more detailed version of my handout once I get back to Indiana, along with some video clips covering some of the issues we discussed.

Meanwhile, I’m having a great time attending conference sessions and hearing fantastic young orchestras from around the country.  The Carmel (IN) High School orchestra was incredible, I say with unabashed Hoosier pride. And the Lafayette High School Chamber Orchestra (from Lexington KY) was amazing as well, playing with extraordinary energy and enthusiasm.

Those of us who participate in training young people to be professional musicians worry a lot about audience declines, etc.  Hanging out with people whose mission is involving young people in making music, period (i.e., not necessarily to have a career, “just” to transform their lives) is a joy.  Great, positive people with a nearly intoxicating sense of purpose.


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Listening links for today’s radio appearance

Here’s an update on today’s radio appearance discussing the Bach Cello Suites and Eric Siblin’s book about them.  The segment is at 11:00 AM Eastern Time (after the NPR news, I assume).  I’ll be on sometime after 11:15 AM (that’s when they are calling me).

To listen live, go to the the WBUR website and click on “listen live.”  After 3:00 PM ET, you can listen to the recorded show on the program’s site.

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Radio Appearance Monday 12/8

Want something to listen to Monday morning?  I’ll be a guest during the 11:00 AM-noon segment of On Point, an NPR program originating from WBUR in Boston.  Eric Siblin, whose book has been the feature of my last two posts, will be the main guest, talking about his book The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece. My role will be to give a professional cellist and teacher’s perspective on the Suites. You can listen to the program live via the website, or later from the show’s archive.


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Eric Siblin on his writing process

Reading Eric Siblin’s The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece, I found myself very curious about Eric’s writing process.  (My review of the book is below.) I’ve struggled with writing my own book, on improvisation and creativity and playing classical music.  It seems to want to be several books, none of them quite long enough to warrant it’s own volume.  Eric’s book combines four different stories and he found an organizational structure which enabled him to combine them.  He very kindly agreed to answer some questions via email.  Our correspondence (published with his permission, of course) is below.

Q. Do you see a parallel between Casals’s personal discovery of the Suites as a teenager and your own discovery of them in adulthood? Is that why you focus on Casals rather than, say, Yo-Yo Ma, whose own career has been so involved with the Suites?

A. I never thought of it along those lines. But the theme of discovery certainly ran through my mind on a regular basis while writing the book. And there was a magical moment in my research when I stumbled upon a Grutzmacher edition of the suites in a second-hand music shop called “Prelude” in Brussels and experienced a sort of Casalsian déjà-vu. Because the first historical scene that came to mind when I set out to write the book was a young Casals strolling in the old port district of Barcelona in 1890 when he stumbled upon the music (also a Grutzmacher edition) my own “discovery” of the sheet music had a wonderful sense of coming full circle, of actually stepping into a “prelude” I had always imagined.

Why did I focus on Casals and not on, say, Ma, Rostropovitch, Starker or Bylsma? In my initial attempt to figure out what makes this music tick I of course read up on Casals and was struck by how dramatic his life was from a storytelling point of view. I also have a deep interest in history, which is one of the things that appealed to me about classical music – it has such an eloquent past. In that sense it’s the polar opposite of the Top 40 pop world, which tends to be very much about the here and now.

Fundamentally my book is an attempt to tell a story based on a piece of music and for that purpose Casals was a terrific narrative thread. I quickly came to feel that his life was a compelling 20th century counterpoint to the story of Bach, who was born back in 1685 and whose life is shrouded in so much mystery.

Q. You are, among many other things, a music writer.  You love the Suites, but in the book you don’t write much about the music itself.  You focus on the life of the Suites (and the manuscripts) and the lives they’ve changed.  How did this focus–including the choice not to write much about the music itself, or comparing recordings, come about?

A. The main reason why the book does not spend more time delving into the music in purely musical terms is that I simply don’t possess the necessary technical know-how or vocabulary. I have no literate music background; although I play guitar, I have always played by ear (or with “guitar tablature”). I learned how to read the bass clef in a rudimentary way when I took cello lessons during the writing of the book, but otherwise I’m quite illiterate musically, certainly in the classical sense.

But there is another reason why there’s not more musicological material in the book. I was writing for the general reader, perhaps the music lover, but not necessarily a classical music expert, and wanted to keep the narrative ball moving. I tried as best I could to get the facts right, but my primary allegiance was to story line.

That said, I also wanted to embed the music in the text as much as possible, hence my organization of the chapters according to the suite movements; and whenever I could speak to the music itself in human terms I tried to do so. I also began every suite with a descriptive passage about what the music sounds like to me (in non musicological terms).  And whenever something strictly musical jumped out at me, I tried to use it. For example, when 20 seconds into the gigue of Suite No. 3 I hear the riffing of a rock guitarist, I write about it. Or when the prelude of the fourth suite suddenly goes off on an exotic tangent, I play with it. That fourth prelude is also an example of my decision not to use overly technical musical language even when I was able to. At some point I learned that that exotic passage in that prelude is called a cadenza. I was tempted to show off my new knowledge. But I figured my average reader would not know what a cadenza means, so I resisted the temptation.

Q. This book is obviously the product of a lot of research and reflection.  Organizing the different stories you tell–Bach’s life, Casals’s life (especially with the Suites), the missing autograph manuscript, and your own–into one book was quite a challenge.  How did the form of the book evolve?  What role did your editor(s) and informal advisers (like friends) play?

A. Very early on I had the idea to mirror the structure of the music in the text itself.  I liked the idea for several reasons, because it was a way of injecting the music directly into the book and, on a more superficial level, using the lyrical names of movements like sarabande and gavotte as chapter titles.  It also served as a sort of narrative GPS for me in the writing of the book. Having never written a book before it was a daunting project. But knowing there would be an extremely effervescent third prelude following the sad second suite, to take one example, helped me see the narrative light at the end of the tunnel. Take the prelude of the second suite. It sounds sufficiently tragic to me that as I started to follow Bach’s life it seemed clear that the biographical event most likely to dovetail the music at that point in time was the death of his wife.

But there was a downside to this attempt at following the music, which was that I was trying to fit the narrative pieces into a vast musical mosaic, trying to make the story melancholic when the music suggested as much, and so on. I pulled my hair out a fair bit over this. Ultimately I relaxed the symmetry in order to complete the book. And when a publisher accepted the finished manuscript that’s one of the things my editor focused on – urging me to relax this overly rigid attempt to make the words mirror the music. There were even discussions about whether I should drop the musical structure of the book altogether. At one point I did drop the preludes and gigues etc. from the text in order to focus on narrative flow. But I knew I would put that structure back in so I never lost sight of the musical template. It became less of a straitjacket in the editing process.

Otherwise the book evolved in a quite an organic way that reflected my own research. I tended to research it one suite at a time, writing it more or less one suite at a time, so that when I made to Suite No. 5, for example, I was consumed with finding out what the relation of the lute suite to the cello suite is (Bach composed a version of the first cello suite for lute – BWV995); who this mysterious Monsieur Schouster might have been (dedicatee of the lute suite); which led me to what was going on in Saxony and the capital of Dresden in Bach’s day; the mind-blowingly minimalist sarabande of that suite; the solo cello works of  the Italian cellist Gabrielli; and the notion that Bach’s music can be played with artistic impunity if not total charm on absolutely any instrument. So the music itself very much guided me and spurred me on.

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