Monthly Archives: November 2011

“Ladies and gentleman, there is no interpretation.”

Turns out I’m not the only classical instrumentalist with a penchant for improvising who loves Frank Sinatra.  Jeff Agrell has a great post about his experience playing in an orchestra backing up Sinatra-embodier Steve Lippia.  Jeff adds a brilliant description of techniques jazz singers use that classical players hardly ever do, and, asking himself why jazz singers do what they do, offers wise insight into what makes effective performances so effective:

1) Variety. The success of every composition depends on the proper balance of unity (what you can predict) and variety (what you can’t). Too much unity and the listener is bored. Too much variety and the listener is frustrated. A 50/50 balance is just right, where the listener can guess what’s coming next about half the time.

[big snip]

2) Expression. None of the tracks were unaccompanied. All vocal lines have a band supporting them, contrasting with them, providing solid beat (predictable) plus phrase end fills, occasional bridge choruses, and rhythmic punctuation along the way (variety) against which the vocal lines can create their magic.

(Read the whole post–it’s worth it.)

This balance of steadiness and freedom, of predictability and surprise, about which Jeff writes so clearly, is one of the essentials in a great free improvisation. Which is why, I suppose, I love improvised melodies over drones or ostinatos (repeated patterns), which provide a solid platform to be creative over.

I’m reminded of when years ago I played in a small orchestra backing up Smokey Robinson.  Smokey toured with his own rhythm section and added local strings, as I recall. (Maybe winds, too.  I’m not sure.  But bless him for hiring those of us he hired!)

We locals had a rehearsal with his music director, who played a Dr. Beat metronome, set to its most clanky setting, through an amplifier.

“Ladies and gentleman, there is no interpretation,” the m.d. announced, with obviously-practiced authority, seeming somewhat grim about having to retrain yet another set of overly-lyrical musicians.

“There is no rubato.  There will be no slowing down or speeding up. You will stay exactly with the beat”   Resigned but determined, he worked to make sure we knew the charts and kept everything steady.  (OK, there may have been some ritards as songs ended, and some cued entrances and holds. But 99% of the time, we were amazingly rock-solid and did not adjust to what he was doing.)

It seemed obnoxious in the rehearsal. In the concert, I got it. We hadn’t rehearsed with Smokey.  Didn’t need to.  Because there was no interpretation on our parts.  He did his magic over the solid foundation his music director made sure we gave him.   We were steady so he could be free.

And here he is, in the most recent video on his website, in which the virtues of a steady-as-a-rock rhythm section are in abundant evidence:



Filed under Frank Sinatra, improvisation, Interpretation, Jeff Agrell, Smokey Robinson, videos

The Lie Down Bach Concert: How Was It For You?

I’m just back from an enchanting late-evening experience. Lying in semi-darkness on my favorite comforter on the floor of Greencastle’s Gobin Memorial United Methodist Church, I and about 45 or 50 college students (a number in pajamas) were enveloped by Katya Kramer-Lapin‘s beautiful, varied, wide-ranging playing of the Bach Goldberg Variations.  An arts-presenter friend estimated the total attendance at 65-80, including those (mostly of post-college age) sitting in pews.

45+ students at 9:00 PM on a Sunday night, with no “recital attendance” credit.  They came just for the experience. Many were lying down, eyes closed, throughout the event.  Some multi-tasked, working on laptops or smart phones. The ones I spoke with loved it. “We should do something like this once a month,” one told me.

I could go on and on, and perhaps will tomorrow.  Meanwhile, the purpose of this post is so those who attended can add comments sharing their experience, and ideas for future engaging, inviting, and unconventional performances.  If you were there, add a comment.  If you weren’t, ask a question.


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Sunday Night: Lie Down with Bach

Katya Kramer-Lapin, a wonderful pianist finishing her doctorate at the IU Jacobs School of Music and one of my DePauw colleagues, is playing the Bach Goldberg Variations tonight (Sunday Nov. 13) in the beautiful Methodist church nestled in the heart of the DePauw University campus.

We’re dimming the lights, lighting some candles, and, most importantly, making as much floor space available in the sanctuary as possible.

Floor space?

Yes, so the audience, most of whom we expect to be college students, can bring comforters, blankets, sleeping bags, and pillows, and listen to the music lying down. Pajamas are welcome, even encouraged, if not required.

You know what?  There’s some buzz about it.

A bunch of young people who would not voluntarily sit for 90 minutes in a church pew or an auditorium seat are excited about being able to experience Bach while lying down. There’s a legend to this piece: that it was commissioned by a wealthy insomniac patron, for the latter’s keyboard-prodigy servant (Goldberg) to play while his master tossed and turned trying to sleep. So it seems apropos to offer a similar opportunity to a larger group.

And, of course, listening to music while lying down is wonderful.  People do it at home all the time; in a public space, very rarely.  But how extraordinary it should be to stetch out, relax, and experience a world-class pianist making music.  I’m really looking forward to it.

We’re framing the event as a study break and a time of meditation.  We want to balance the informality and novelty with the idea of a peaceful, quiet space, and not have it devolve into a silly pajama party.  It’s all come about through conversations between Katya, me, and members of the first-year seminar class for music majors I teach at DePauw, in which one of the topics is the question of how to get college students to enjoy classical music.

I’ve just read through Greg Sandow’s recent series of posts (hereherehere, and here), and the 93 comments to date (many voluminous and all surprisingly civil in tone), on outreach, education and what I think is Greg’s brilliant insight, one that’s changed my life, which I’ll paraphrase: hey, before anything else, let’s get our peers to listen to our music. My head is still spinning from the discussion, which roams through white colonialism, the brilliance of hip hop, the lack of African Americans in classical music (with notable exceptions).  Images of a graduate course on “Rhythm” at SUNY Stony Brook, where I couldn’t understand most of what people were saying, or why they were saying it, came to mind.  (I sat in on the first session and did not register for it.  I do remember, though, that most of what I couldn’t understand, which flowed forth spontaneously from eager-to-impress theory, musicology, and composition students, was quickly dismissed as the bullshit it was by the professor, although he didn’t use that word.  It was just more bullshit than I thought I could handle.)

Which is not to put Greg or any of the commenters down. Greg started off by saying that while outreach and education are great, we, especially young musicians, need to be getting “people like us” to come to concerts. The conversation, though, does seem to want to avoid the question (perhaps not surprisingly, since it’s so hard to answer) of how we engage new audiences–especially people under 40–without sacrificing artistic quality.  That’s not exactly how Greg phrases it.  For me, though, that’s the question.  My sabbatical in New York, the hundred or more different performances I went to, Greg’s Juilliard course that I sat in on, and everything else?  What I got from it was a question. This question. For me, the question.

Questions are more important than answers.

And so I’ve been asking it of lots of people, including those who play and sing in concerts I organize. Katya’s one of them.  So are my students.  We imagined this together.  I’ll let you know how it turns out.


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Filed under attracting younger audeinces, audeince building, Greg Sandow, Katya Kramer-Lapin

Sunday in the Bar with Johann and the Preschoolers

One of [le] poisson rouge‘s motto’s may be “serving art and alcohol,” but when Orli Shaham and company take the space over on Sunday, it’s only musical art being served, so bring your own . . . whatever.  Not exotic cocktails but zippered plastic bags of Cheerios, fruit, and other treats will be in plentiful supply at the bring-your-own-snacks event. With the bar closed, might a thermos bottle of something stronger find itself lodged in amongst the juice boxes in the diaper bags?  Don’t ask, don’t tell.

No matter what you’re (not) drinking, Baby Got Bach returns to lpr this Sunday morning at 11:00 AM.  The wonderful carnival of musical exploration in the Gallery Bar space will once again precede an interactive concert in the main performance area. Orli, mother of pre-school twins, knows her audience–kids, parents, and grandparents alike–and puts on a fun, engaging event with top-level music.

I had a great time at BGB last April, even without kids in tow.  (Hey, I just remembered who I know who has kids in the city–I’m going to email them. If I had kids (and we were in New York), I’d definitely be taking them this weekend to hear Orli and a woodwind quintet play music by Bach, Berio, Schumann, Ligeti and others. My youngest child is no longer a child (a college junior), and my oldest is teaching English to first and second graders in China. Were I in New York, I might show up anyway, just to hear that combination of musical voices, and take delight in the delight of the kids.

My friend Greg Sandow has written a series of posts (here, here, here, and here) criticizing aspects of the outreach/education imperative in institutional classical music.  I’m just starting to wade through the discussion.  One thing that’s clear to me, though,is that it’s OK to play music you love for as many types of audiences as possible.  

And that’s one of the things I loved about Baby Got Bach when I attended an event last spring.  It didn’t feel like some contrived let’s-do-an-education-project-to-get-a-grant thing.  It’s a mom, who’s a fabulous musician, putting together concerts for kids, hers other people’s, and their parents. A terrific family event. In, of all places, a trendy Village venue.

Where, usually, “alcohol is our patron.”

But not for Baby Got Bach. Art isn’t free, and they aren’t selling drinks.

So if you’re in New York, take your kid or grandchild or niece or nephew, buy tickets (they aren’t expensive) have a great time, and think about making a donation.  Because this is worth it, not so someone might one grow up and one day subscribe to the symphony (although they might, or help reinvent the symphony); because it’s just a great way to share music, and kids deserve that as much as anyone.

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Filed under Baby Got Bach, Le Poisson Rouge, Orli Shaham


This is fun.  And what a great project in must have been for the fifth grade students at Kuinerrarmiut Elitnaurviat in Quinhagak, Alaska, and their teacher(s) and others involved in the filming and editing.  I don’t think they expected to become a YouTube sensation. Some things you just can’t help.

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