Wednesday, November 19, 2014

All play and no work makes John a dull musician

My favorite part of music is practice time, all alone at home, with no one watching or listening. The acoustics are good, and solo time with my instruments is where I make progress. I can concentrate on points of technique and particular musical phrases that need attention, and it’s important to do that alone because it involves playing one short part repeatedly. I find great joy in playing the same thing over and over, but it’s not much fun for the listener.
I estimate a ratio of 10 to 1 regarding practicing versus public performance: 10 hours of practice for one hour of playing, and that may be generous on the public performance side. Too much “playing” and not enough practicing, and my technique deteriorates alarmingly. It was interesting to find that concept confirmed in a book about introverts.
Susan Cain in “Quiet — The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” published in 2012, discusses the work of research psychologist Anders Ericsson and colleagues, who compared three groups of expert violinists at the elite Music Academy in West Berlin. The professors divided students into three groups: the best violinists, with the potential for careers as international soloists; good violinists; and a third group training to be violin teachers rather than performers.

My accidental new guitar

Published June 2, 2011
I accidentally ordered a new guitar last month. I just learned about it last week when a notice came by email that my new guitar was being made. A photo from the factory shows the guitar in its embryonic stage, just a rough fingerboard and shaped sides.
This was a complete surprise to me. I was looking at new guitars on the Taylor website last month. I swear I was only looking, but somehow I must have placed an order.
I have no money for a new guitar, but the builder is not allowed to refuse my order and must send the guitar regardless. I assume he’ll be reimbursed by the federal government, but that’s not my concern. All I care about is the guitar. Someone else can pay for it.
I won’t have money for upkeep either, so I signed up for a federal string replacement program. I change my strings at least every three months, more if I play a great deal, and since I can’t afford all those new strings, federal funds that magically appear out of the sky will pay for the strings. I could recycle the old strings and packages, but I’ll just throw them in the trash where they’ll contribute to the growing landfills. I’ll need fingerboard lubricant and wood polish too, and the magical funds will also pay for those necessities.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Records worth keeping

Vinyl records were made obsolete by CDs, but I still find pleasure in them. Much of my interest is based on nostalgia for my youth and for times before I was born and for a more mechanical, less electronic age when people rode trains, wrote with fountain pens, and typed on typewriters, but I also appreciate records for themselves. I like the cover art and liner notes, and I like watching a needle in the groove as a record hypnotically spins round and round. Playing records involves a hard needle pressing into soft vinyl, and they are susceptible to the elements, so they need special care. But first, some background. 

Christmas music of the 1960s



Music and the sense of smell are two of the strongest memory triggers. The first fall furnace run, filling the air with duct dust, triggers childhood memories of colored lights on a live Christmas tree and Christmas music on a monaural record player.
Each December in the 1960s we eagerly went with our father to Goodyear Hall in Akron for an early Christmas treat, where every child of Goodyear employees received a Christmas present and a bag of hard candy. The exciting part was that you chose your toy from the racks, and the toys were not cheap junk that broke in an hour; they were exciting, good-quality toys. My older brother, obsessed with things on wheels, always chose models. Sometimes an inflatable parade float hovered in the hall, movies were shown, and, if I remember correctly, the model railroad club ran its trains on the room-size layout.

Exploring the frontier with music

Earlier this week I listened to the album “Symphonic Star Trek” by the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra. It’s a collection of music from the Star Trek television shows and movies, and much of the music stands on its own, even when you set aside images of star ships flashing past and battles with Klingons, as good classical music tinged with a touch of popcorn. I especially liked the theme from “Star Trek: Voyager,” a television show, fourth in the franchise, that ran from 1995 to 2001. The Voyager theme is typical space show fare, grand and celebratory, capturing the affection that sci-fi fans have for outer space and star ships. It reminded me somewhat of the theme from “Dances With Wolves.” The DWW piece is more melancholy, the woodwinds and brass supporting the strings, which carry the main theme, whereas Voyager is more celebratory, opening with tympany, which always serves well as a fanfare percussion instrument, presenting the theme on brass supported by strings, and as I listened to Voyager instead of futuristic ships in space I could picture a cowboy guiding a herd of cattle across a western river.
This grand orchestral music has become a tradition in science fiction movies, firmly established by “Star Wars” in 1977. For that ground-breaking film, George Lucas and John Williams eschewed 1950s-style sci-fi music filled with electronic effects and the eerie theremin and instead opted for awe-inspiring classical themes that enhanced the passing of a spaceship or the entrance of a villain with new levels of drama and grandeur through the magic that only music can bring to a film. The first Star Trek movie, “Star Trek The Motion Picture,” was released in 1979, and the success of “Star Wars” compelled the Star Trek creators to follow suit with a redesigned Enterprise (that’s the ship, for you non-fans) and classical themes. Jerry Goldsmith proved equal to the task for the first movie, and his main theme was adapted for “Star Trek The Next Generation,” the long-awaited sequel to the original series that first aired in 1987; and succeeding movies continued the tradition.

Brian's Blog

See this link for a post by my nephew Brian that includes comments about folk-rock music:
http://brianrwhitacre.wordpress.com/2013/10/28/searching-through-the-past-for-the-unknown/

La musica, la famiglia, l’amore

Published April 18, 2014
Much of the appeal of the movie “Moonstruck” for me is the music. I first saw the film, which was released in 1987, in the early 1990s and bought the soundtrack not long after, drawn to it for the mandolin music. I recently watched the movie again and got caught up in its look at Italian-Americans in New York City.
The producers patterned the movie’s structure after an opera and opened the first version with selections from Puccini’s “La Boheme,” but seeing lack of audience response during a test filming they reworked the opening, moving the opera scenes further into the show and placing Dean Martin’s “That’s Amore” over the opening credits. The song’s tongue-in-cheek view of Italian-Americans set the tone and relaxed the audience.
Longtime jazz musician Dick Hyman arranged and composed most of the film’s music, his arrangements reminiscent of early 1960s jazz-influenced music that dominated much of popular radio before rock music took over. Vikki Carr’s 1967 hit “It Must Be Him” figures strongly in the film and contributes to its ambience, and New York City’s Little Italy further lends the film a feel of decades past.

Out with the old? Nope

Published July 26, 2013
Among the loads of stuff large and small I brought home while cleaning out my parents’ house was my dad’s old stereo receiver and turntable. They were of excellent quality in their day, and because my receiver crackled in one channel I decided to replace it with my dad’s. My turntable still works well, but I just couldn’t resist the second turntable. Installation, however, evolved into more than twice the job I expected.
I spent several hours over a few days last winter installing the equipment because I own a large, complex system. In these days of all-in-one stereos and home entertainment systems, I still prefer my complex multi-component stereo system. I subscribe to the idea I learned in the 1970s that an individual component is of higher quality than one that is part of a combo setup, and a further advantage lies in the ability to replace a component rather than the entire system if one component goes bad. Extending that idea, a high-end stereo employs a separate amplifier and receiver because the two interfere electronically with each other, but I haven’t gone that far, and combined units manage to compromise well enough.

O Muse! Sing in me

Published Dec. 16, 2003
“A Mighty Wind” blew through my house last month. Nothing was damaged, but records, books and CDs are strewn about my library.
“A Mighty Wind” is a mockumentary made by the folks from Second City in Chicago and is a dead-on satire of the early 1960s folk music boom. It follows three music groups who gather for a tribute concert, and it is especially convincing because the actors sing and play their instruments, with no dubbing. Sham album covers and bogus ’60s-style television performances contribute to the realism, and someone who doesn’t know this is all a send-up could be absolutely duped.
The parody is convincing by virtue of its accuracy. The New Main Street Singers copy the choral harmonization and squeaky-clean looks of The New Christy Minstrels, complete with a look-alike Hawaiian singer and the catchphrase “Easy now,” as proclaimed by Barry McGuire in the hit “Green, Green.” Mitch & Mickey are a parody of Ian & Sylvia, who started with traditional folk songs and later moved into topical, personal material, and the Folksmen imitate the good-time music of the Kingston Trio.

He’ll meet you at the crossroads

Published Nov. 6, 2007
Niccolo Paganini, says the “Forgotten English” calendar, was the first musical superstar, producing “giddiness and ecstatic collapse among female members of his audience ...” His amazing skill on the violin led people to claim that he had made a pact with the devil.
Paganini, born Oct. 28, 1782, set a standard for showmanship in violin playing, using harmonics, pizzicato (plucked) effects and new fingerings, and influenced generations of violinists. But he wasn’t the first musician to be associated with the devil.
Musical alliances with Old Scratch were a common theme in violin playing and especially in Celtic fiddling, which was associated with the devil because it compelled people to dance and young people to fraternize too closely. The kirk (the Scottish term for church) banned dancing and dance music long ago, thus depleting the traditional repertoire of dance tunes until the kirk lightened up and composers and fiddlers began writing tunes again, starting in the late 1600s. The legends persisted though and survive in a wealth of tunes and songs with “devil” in the title, both in British Isles fiddling and in American tunes.

A fiend for the guitar

John G. Whitacre Published June 30, 2009
Two guys with guitars across the way were having a good old time, drinking beer and singing old rock songs as we set up our tent. Neither was a great player or singer, and one even said, “You know what — we suck,” but still I wished I could join them.
I often take an instrument on vacation, but most times I play it too little to justify leaving it in the car for hours and worrying about it while we’re off touring. This time I came close to taking my guitar, but I left it behind, and all week I ached to play thanks to our tour of C.F. Martin & Co.
We began our June vacation in eastern Pennsylvania visiting family, and my nephew suggested a tour of the C.F. Martin factory in Nazareth. The C.F. stands for Christian Frederick, who came from Mark Neukirchen, Saxony, (now Germany) in 1833, setting up a music shop in New York City after studying the making of violins and guitars under Johann Stauffer of Vienna.
Herr Martin operated a full-line music store, importing and wholesaling instruments, strings and sheet music. C.F. disliked the big city and longed for the wooded hills of his homeland, so in 1839 he sold his business and moved to Bushkill Township, near Nazareth. From then on, the Martin Company focused on building instruments and in the early 1900s developed the dreadnought, the guitar that dwarfed its 19th-century predecessors and set the standard for American guitars.

Meeting guitar maker Jean Larriveé at Wildwood Music

Published March 22, 2013
I had several questions for master guitar maker Jean Larriveé, founder (in 1967) and owner of Jean Larriveé Guitar Inc. (That’s the French man’s name Jean, not the woman’s name.) I’ve been studying guitars in great detail as I prepare to buy, and I had the good fortune to ask the man himself about scale length, bracing, tonal qualities, recording ideas and the proper guitar for Celtic melody playing.
I met Jean Larriveé and Ricky Thompson, the Larriveé director of sales and artist relations, when they visited Wildwood Music in Roscoe Village, across the river from Coshocton, last Saturday. Wildwood owners Marty Rodabaugh and Don McKay sponsored the visit, having stocked an abundance of Larriveé guitars and maintained a business relationship/friendship with Larriveé for many years.
The small store was quite crowded, so it took a while for me to get Jean’s ear, but I enjoyed perusing the store, and I had nowhere else to go. Jean and Ricky answered all my questions, and I learned later that Jean prefers the smaller guitars to the large dreadnoughts that dominate U.S. guitar preferences.
I was surprised to hear that people drove from Indiana (four and a half hours), Michigan and Virginia (six hours) to meet Jean, who was personable, informative and instantly likable. After the store closed, many of us adjourned to the Warehouse restaurant in Roscoe Village for dinner with Jean, Ricky, Marty and Don.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Muse and Commander

Published March 2, 2004
There is one message I have for you today. It is to find something you love and do it for the rest of your life. — Ray Bradbury
A beautiful world awaits the adventurer who dares to tear himself from the glowing screen. It waits in books, it waits in nooks, if you dare to look beyond that crook, that glowing screen.
It’s easy to sit in front of a television and do nothing. I quit watching TV in the late 1980s after I realized inertia, more than programming, kept me on the couch, and though some shows are interesting, I don’t have time for them. I’m too busy living life to watch it.
Music, words, history and animals are my passions, and nothing on TV can stack up to actions and interactions in the three-dimensional world. Television is eclipsed by the joy of my goat napping on my lap, and improvement in music or writing is only begot through study and practice.
I’m never so bored that I would turn to commercial television. I simply don’t have time, because I subscribe to Thomas Edison’s belief in hard work: “Opportunity is missed by most people, because it is dressed in overalls, and it looks like work.” The meaning of Edison’s most famous quote, “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration,” has been dulled by repetition, and I didn’t truly understand it until I dedicated myself to music: Seemingly magical talent, knowledge and creativity are the result of a mess of work.

In readiness for the next step

Published: Oct. 4, 2005
For a few hours, Thomas Wolfe was wrong. The Bog Carrot reunited for a day of conversation and music, and for a few hours I was 15 years younger.
The Bog Carrot was a Celtic music group formed in 1990 by musicians who met at Quail Hollow State Park music sessions. Tom, Mark and I played traditional music of Ireland, Scotland and Wales on fiddle; various sizes of mandolins, flutes, whistles and recorders; hurdy gurdy, bodhran (an Irish drum) and guitar.
Tom, the founder, invited me to join after he saw my blossoming interest in Celtic music. I had discovered traditional music in 1989 at Quail Hollow, near Hartville, and I was immediately attracted to the Baroque-style music of the Irish harper Turlough O’Carolan, a contemporary of Johann Bach. I didn’t immediately settle on the Celtic style, which itself comprises several styles, because I still found the shuffle-bowed Appalachian style fiddling appealing. But Tom introduced me to music groups such as the bagpipes-driven Tannahill Weavers from Scotland, mandolin-laden Planxty from Ireland, and Ar Log from Wales; the Ligonier Highland Games in Pennsylvania; and instructional material, steering me firmly toward the sometimes haunting, sometimes driving, always emotional music of our Celtic forbears.

Mandolin Society concert took listeners back a century

Published Nov. 1, 2004
The Montana Mandolin Society took listeners back a century to the mandolin orchestras that were the rage in the early 1900s. Based in Bozeman, Mont., the string ensemble played at Alliance High School in the opening concert of the Alliance Area Concert Association’s 2004-05 season.
MMS plays a mix of popular and traditional music on mandolin family instruments and other string instruments and is a resurrection of the Bozeman Mandolin and Guitar Club of 1902. Group leader Dennis White said the mandolin orchestra era ran from 1894 to 1924 and ended when Louis Armstrong’s loud, driving jazz superseded mandolins and the gentler classical and traditional music styles.
Mandolin groups were as ubiquitous then as rock groups are now and were found in just about every city, inspired by The Spanish Students that toured the country playing bandoras, a large European instrument similar to a mandolin, and guitars. Those mandolin groups played a quartet of instruments patterned after the string instruments of the orchestra.

Hop a train with Johnny Cash


Published Jan. 13, 2012
Johnny Cash mounts the steps of a steam locomotive in the beginning of the documentary “Ridin’ the Rails,” pulls a blast on the whistle cord, looks out the window as the piston rods begin turning the huge driver wheels, and pulls the whistle a few more times as the locomotive gains speed. I’m jealous — I wish I could ride in a steam cab. Such is the benefit of fame.
Cash starred in the documentary history of U.S. railroads, created, written and produced by Nicholas Webster and Dyann Rivkin and airing in 1974 on primetime television, mingling mysteriously as an unseen participant with historical characters in reenactments of famous moments in railroad history, telling stories of railroads, and singing songs about the good and the bad moments of railroading, opening with the title song.

The secret to good music

Published Oct. 18, 2005
I got out my main violin two weeks ago to practice, and I was appalled. I haven’t been practicing, and it showed. Violin is not something you learn and then set aside, picking it up when it’s time to perform. It requires regular practice just to maintain ability and serious, dedicated, slow practice to improve.
A violin lets you know that you haven’t been practicing. I know this, and I go through this regularly, but if I play after a hiatus, I get discouraged and feel as if I’m wasting my time, that I lack some secret talent the great violinists possess. But it’s no secret; as Pete Seeger wrote in his book on playing the banjo, the secret to good tone is practice.
It didn’t help that I was tired that night, and I was trying to practice with the music book on the piano instead of my heavy black stand. And the next day I realized that my strings and bow hair were nine months old. Three months is enough to kill them in normal circumstances for a part-time musician, and nine months is 90 years old in string years.

Memorial Day 2004 Observations

Published June 8, 2004
Informal should not mean rude, but it often does. I attended the Dulci-More folk music concert on Memorial Day weekend, and Saturday’s featured performers, Bob Zentz and Madeline MacNeil, gave excellent performances. Zentz performed for a half-hour and MacNeil, after the intermission, for about 45 minutes. And in that time, not two minutes passed without someone in the audience getting up to go somewhere.
I have attended and performed in dozens of concerts and plays, where the audience stays in its seat during the show. You stay there because you might miss something, and if the show isn’t your mug of tea you sit still out of respect for the performers and other audience members.
I realize the folk concert was an informal affair. Folk music by nature is an informal creature. Doors in the concert hall were left open to keep the room cool. Snacks were available for sale on a side table, and vendors manned their stations at the back, selling recordings, instruments and accessories. People continuously went outside and came back in.

The glass armonica: music to expunge fingerprints

Published July 11, 2006
An invention largely forgotten, overshadowed by the sundry enterprises of America’s first citizen of the world, is Benjamin Franklin’s glass armonica, a superb example of the workings of Franklin’s agile intellect.
While an agent for Pennsylvania in England from 1757 to 1762, Franklin attended a concert performed on wine glasses. Franklin the musician enjoyed the concert, but Franklin the inventor was dissatisfied. “Being charmed by the sweetness of its tones and the music he produced from it, I wished only to see the glasses disposed in a more convenient form, and brought together in a narrower compass, so as to admit of a greater number of tunes and all within reach of hand to a person sitting before the instrument,” he later wrote to an acquaintance. The armonica, wrote Franklin, was based on the common practice of bored dinner guests, and some musicians, of producing a resonant tone by moving a wet finger around the rim of a glass. It was founded on a copy made by Edmund Delaval, of England’s Royal Society, of a contrivance designed by Richard Puckeridge in 1743, in which glasses of different sizes were fixed on a table and tuned by placing them in water. Franklin turned his mechanical mind to the problem and in 1761 invented the armonica.

Ken ye these words?

Published Jan. 18, 2005
Scottish fiddle music is an enchanting music dialect, resonating with the culture and history of Highlands and isles, and the titles of tunes or songs can lead down fascinating byways. Many unusual words in the Scots dialect are of Gaelic origin, and some are Germanic with a Scots burr.
“Wha Wadna Fecht For Charlie?” (Who Wouldnt Fight For Charlie?) is an 18th-century Scottish fight song. Bonnie Prince Charlie tried to retake the throne of England from the House of Hanover in 1745, and many Scots still revere him. In the movie “The Great Escape,” two Scotsmen danced in a circle and sang this song when they heard the first tunnel was nearly complete.
“Loch Lomond” is that rare Scottish song that almost everyone knows. It is possibly about a follower of Bonnie Prince Charlie who is about to be executed. He tells his fiance he’ll take the low road, or the grave. Another famous loch is Loch Ness, home of the monster. A Gaelic word meaning lake, loch is a common geographic term, the Irish spelling is lough, and lochan is a small lake. Lochaber, a district in northwest Scotland on the west end of the Grampian Mountains, includes Ben Nevis, the highest peak in Great Britain. The traditional music group Boys of the Lough plays frequently on the radio show “A Prairie Home Companion.”

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Picking a bone with Dr. Scholes

Published May 2, 2014
I have a bone to “pick” with Percy Scholes. He belittles my beloved mandolin.
Scholes describes the mandolin in “The Oxford Companion to Music” as “an instrument of somewhat the same type as the lute but much less artistically valuable, being now in use for the most part by people who wish to play simple music without much trouble.”
I found Scholes’ dismissive definition of the mandolin in the 10th edition of the “Companion to Music,” published in 1970. The first edition was published in 1938, “the product of six years and more of work on the part of one superman and a varying number of paid and unpaid clerical helpers who at various times included” Scholes’ wife and mother-in-law, according to the preface of the 10th. “The result of this solo performance was a book which has been called ‘strongly personal, limited in range, but endlessly fascinating’ ... For the present revision it was considered quite inappropriate to change radically the characteristic rich anecdotal quality of Dr. Scholes’ style. ...”
Scholes said in the preface to the first edition that he played or read thousands of sheets of music and scrutinized thousands of pages of concert and radio programs, gramophone record catalogues, etc., so it’s not as if he was unaware of the classical catalog of mandolin music, which is more extensive than most people realize.

An intense love of song

Published Feb. 24, 2012
Perhaps it was a T-shirt bearing the red dragon of Wales that caught my eye. I have this vague memory of David Mandry wearing such a shirt at the Flax Scutching Festival in Winona in the early 1990s, and because I played in a band, the Bog Carrot, that included Welsh music in its repertoire, in addition to traditional Scottish and Irish tunes, I may have said hello.
David and Joan Mandry, the latter hailing from Aberystwyth on Cardigan Bay and being a singer and folksong compiler, soon became Bog Carrot fans, because it’s not everywhere you hear the traditional music of Wales. They came to hear us play on Aug. 19, 1995, in a concert hosted by the Lisbon Historical Society next to the Old Stone House, a former tavern built in 1805, and with them was a young Welsh woman, Mari Morgan, who, we learned, sang traditional Welsh songs.

The theremin: not just for flying saucers

Published March 23, 2010
Perhaps you never heard the term “theremin,” but you may have heard the instrument by that name. The theremin accompanied robots and flying saucers in science fiction films of the 1950s, most notably in “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” But well before the electronic instrument gained renown of sorts lending atmosphere to UFO invasions, it had found a champion in a musical prodigy from Russia.
Clara Rockmore was born Clara Reisenberg in Russia, the youngest of three musical sisters. She was a child prodigy “with absolute pitch and an uncanny sense of music,” writes Robert Moog in the liner notes to a CD Rockmore recorded in 1987. She was admitted at age 5 to the Imperial Conservatory of Music in St. Petersburg and at age 9 toured Europe with her sister Nadia Reisenberg.

Free yourself from your electronic crutch

Published Dec. 11, 2007
I completely disagree with this lead sentence in an AP business story last week: “Musicians of the world are getting a new kind of artistic freedom with technology that eliminates the challenging chore of tuning.”
A new Gibson electric guitar is equipped with onboard tuning technology developed in Germany that allows the newest Les Paul guitar to tune itself, the first self-tuning technology in the world. “It is particularly useful for beginners, who tend to find tuning a headache,” says the article. The guitar also comes with six types of tunings, so a musician doesn’t have to take an extra guitar for alternate tunings or retune during a concert.
I disagree especially with three words in that first sentence: “Freedom,” “challenging” and “chore.” First, I consider tuning a pleasant time with my instrument, listening to its pleasing tones while giving my hands the chance to warm up as my instrument acclimates itself to the change in humidity and temperature after being taken from its case. Tuning is a pleasure, not a chore.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Mexico’s sunny mariachi

Published Jan. 10, 2006
If Mexican food could make sound (other than the scream caused by a searing chile), it would be mariachi. Mariachi is the folk music of Mexico, a marriage of Indian rhythms and Spanish instrumentation. Its spice and sauce speak of our sunny southern North American neighbor, where Spaniards, themselves a blend of Celtic, Roman and Arabic Moorish cultures and bloodlines, mingled with Indians and blacks to become mestizos, the melange of dark-complected people who make up the Mexican population. Mariachi’s rich sound begins with a comforting tortilla base of nylon-strung guitars: the vihuela, a five-string rhythm guitar; the bajo sexto, a 12-string tuned lower than a normal guitar (bajo meaning low); and the guitarron, the giant six-string bass. One or two trumpets add salsa and Mexican sunshine to the sound, and the sweet sound of violins playing close harmonies contrasts sharply with the Iberian brass. The rhythm shifts from the beat to irresistible syncopation (an irregular procession from bar to bar, as my former violin teacher liked to say). Accordions and waltzes in the north attest to German influence.

Bowing With a Brogue

Published May 18, 2004
One thing I enjoy about Scottish, English and Irish fiddling is the creative contribution expected of the musician. If one played the notes on the page strictly as written, the sound would be choppy and dull, lacking the uplifting dance beat that gives life to the tunes. A fiddler is expected to add the elements of his style to the music, giving the music its accent, its peculiar dialect.
For people who grow up around a certain type of music, that is easy and automatic. But growing up in the 20th century, when traditional fiddling is rare, and in America, across the ocean from the countries that harbor the music, I had to search for the sound of British Isles fiddling and train myself to play it. I’m still learning.
I had to learn the same way about historical Baroque performance. The Baroque era in classical music lasted approximately from 1600 to 1750, when J.S. Bach died. After Bach’s time, his music was considered outdated and stilted, and if someone mentioned Bach, they were referring to C.P.E. Bach, the son of J.S., who wrote in the newer, more fluid style of Mozart and Haydn. So when people performed Baroque music, they infused it with the performance style of their time.

Playing violin with a dead man

Published July 17, 2007
I spent 90 minutes on Independence Day with George Bush. The George Bush I visited, though, is not the president; he fought in the American Revolution.
George Bush was an officer of the Continental Line under George Washington. He was born about 1753 in Wilmington, Delaware, and after the conclusion of a four-year apprenticeship to a Philadelphia merchant in 1776 joined the Army as a lieutenant, fighting at Staten Island, Brunswick, Brandywine, Paoli and Germantown and in encounters with Indians. He was wounded at the battle of Brandywine, Pa., in September 1777, and after Germantown, in October 1777, most of his time was spent on recruiting missions and as a paymaster. He wrote to a friend during the winter of 1781-82 that health had prevented his participating in the fighting at Yorktown.

Epistle to Erin

Published Oct. 28, 2008
Erin,
After years of near estrangement, we are again an item. We once again consort in public, and friends remark on our compatibility. It’s a welcome change after those dark days when you had become a stranger to me.
When I met you, I loved everything about you, as is so often the case with new love. I attended every party where I could find you, and we held long, intimate conversations as I learned every nuance of your Irish heritage, your family background and relatives, your lilting dancing, and your lovely Irish accent. We drank beer as we communed, and I learned to love Guinness, that dark liquid stout so symbolic of Ireland, and the occasional Irish whiskey. We attended music festivals and dances, and we were inseparable.

My persistent friend

Published Feb. 24, 2009
Sometimes my friend Josh drives me crazy. First off, Josh isn’t even his real name. When we played in the Tuscarawas Orchestra together, he went by Johann, and I always wondered if his father was German. Then he started playing folk music and switched to Josh. I still don’t know his original name.
I met Josh, or Johann as he called himself back then, in ninth grade. We played in school orchestra together. His father was long dead, and Josh had most recently lived on Ravenna Avenue in Louisville, which I later learned was really Marlboro Township, Louisville being just the mailing address.
We had a lot of good times in school and community orchestras. Johann was the quiet one, keeping to himself in groups but coming into his own during practices and performances. We held long talks and told many jokes with our female orchestra friends before high school concerts. We hung out with our friend Dale, who started on violin but turned traitor and switched to viola, in Canton Youth Symphony.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Grand dame of the harpsichord

Published March 16, 2010
The harpsichord was the stalwart of Baroque music. It provided rhythm and harmony in almost every ensemble piece, whether a sonata for harpsichord and violin or a concerto grosso for full orchestra. The harpsichord and Baroque music thrive these days, and Baroque music lovers are fortunate that many ensembles specialize in correct historical performance of Baroque music, one of the best being Apollo’s Fire, based in Cleveland.
They nearly died out after J.S. Bach died, when Mozart, Handel, Bach’s sons and others composed homophonic music and considered Bach’s complex, elegant polyphony to be outdated and outmoded. But J.S. Bach, the harpsichord and polyphony saw a revival in the early 1900s, much of it thanks to the inimitable Wanda Landowska.

Keeping time in colonial times

Published April 20, 2009
From my first visit in 1975 to my most recent last year, Colonial Williamsburg’s fife and drum corps ranks high as one of my favorite historical attractions at my favorite town. I could watch the corps play and march for hours. CW’s corps recreates the military maneuvers of the American Revolution, when fifes and drums acted as timepieces in camp and as message-bearers in battle.
The fife is a transverse flute (held at a right angle to the body) with six tone holes. It has no keys, all the holes being open and covered with fingers to change pitch. It is pitched in the key of B flat and plays a B flat when all the holes are covered. The traditional fife is made of wood and requires regular oiling, compared to modern flutes and piccolos that are made of metal.
Music for the fife is written in the key of D, and fingering patterns are the same as a D instrument, so the B flat player reads in D but plays in B flat. Fifes can produce nearly a three-octave range, the upper octaves used outside, where the higher pitch can be heard above snare drums and the sound of battle, and the lower octave reserved for indoor use.

The best of both worlds

Nov. 3, 2008
One night at a music party long ago, two friends placed tune after tune on my music stand, watching me as I sight-read the music. I had never seen the tunes before, but I had learned through years of orchestra playing to read music on sight, so I could play most tunes note-perfect if not with the best bowing or tone, which always require practice. A potter at a festival this October compared my playing from the printed page to typing.
Learning to play music from the page requires associating, on string instruments, certain fingers on certain strings with specific notes, and, as with most things, the more you practice the better you become. I learned to play violin in the school orchestra system, learning from the start to play from the page and progressing to school orchestra and the Canton Youth Symphony. But I have loved traditional music all my life, and early on I figured out how to play tunes by ear, which means figuring out what fingers to use by hearing the intervals.

Playing the orchestra game

Published Jan. 4, 2013
I rarely watch football, and when I do, usually at a family gathering where I’m forced against my will to submit to the artificial world of high-stakes ball-chasing, it drives me crazy because they can’t play the game without stopping. Because I don’t watch television, I’m accustomed to movies on DVD without interruptions other than those I choose, so it annoys me to no end to see the continuous stopping of the action in football. Imagine an orchestra concert run like a football game.
First, the kickoff. The orchestra manager stands at the back of the auditorium and kicks the conductor’s baton in the air, and the conductor races to catch it while all the musicians, instruments in hand, race from the sides of the room and find their seats.
The conductor raises his baton while a cameraman hovers to the side, and the musicians launch into Handel’s “Concerto Grosso in F Major.” But just before they reach the key change to C, the orchestra manager calls a time-out and brings out music, aided by the official librarian, with revised bowings for the second violins. The violinists form a huddle with the conductor to discuss the changes, and everyone swigs Perrier. During this lull in the action, the channel televising the concert shows footage of other orchestras around the country and goes to commercials for violin rosin, oboe reeds and trombone mutes.

The quiet pub

Published Jan. 18, 2013
A pint glass of Samuel Smith Nut Brown Ale accompanied me the other night as I played Irish jigs and reels on my fiddle. My violin and bow calling forth traditional tunes that resonate in the deepest recesses of my musical being and the toasty ale made in Yorkshire, the ancestral English home of the Whitacres, transported me. I felt as if I were playing in a British pub rather than in my bedroom. The problem is that the pub I see in my mind doesn’t exist, not in this country at least, not that I know of.
I picture an old-fashioned pub, something like you see in “The Quiet Man.” In that movie the men gather at the pub not merely to drink “black beer,” as John Wayne calls it, but to socialize and learn of community doings. It’s like a living room for the extended family of a close-knit village, and one of my favorite scenes is when a singer playing accordion launches into “The Wild Colonial Boy,” quickly joined by other patrons:
“There was a wild colonial boy, Jack Duggan was his name; He was born and raised in Ireland, In a place called Castlemaine; He was his father’s only son, His mother’s pride and joy; And dearly did his parents love the wild colonial boy.”

Learning to play with Mel Bay

Published Nov. 16, 2012
Four decades later I can still play the tunes I studied in the early 1970s, although a jog of my memory reminds me that I did play some of those tunes at times over the ensuing years. I discovered this fact recently when I played Mel Bay’s arrangement of “Santa Lucia.”
When I play music I develop finger memory, and once I learn a tune I can play it with very little conscious effort because my fingers know where to go, and this was the case with “Santa Lucia.” I learned Mel’s arrangement of the tune in 1972, and it’s still in my fingers, but for a couple spots that evaded me and required consulting the book.

My Irish resolution

Published Feb. 5, 2008
I renewed a resolution this year that I made two years ago: I resolved to practice music every day. Non-musicians probably don’t understand the incredible amount of practice that leads to facility on an instrument. A prospective musician, and I say prospective because it can be weeks before he makes music and months or years before he makes musical music, devotes an inordinate amount of time to learning the basics just so what he does can be called music. Music takes practice, preferably daily, to maintain one’s level of playing and more practice to improve. I knew that, but I still wasn’t practicing, and the Celtic music world was passing me by.
I played violin, mandolin and mandola in a Celtic group in the 1990s. We played at occasional festivals and were accomplished enough to be respected by many of our peers. When the band disbanded, I took a needed break from solo and band practices and the trips to gigs, years passed, and one day it occurred to me that I had become an outsider. I felt as if I were looking into one of those snow globes at a Celtic music scene that I had once inhabited and could not re-enter.

Margery Henke -- My favorite teacher

Published May 18, 2012
I was fortunate to have many good teachers over the years, influencing me in various ways, some bolstering my self-confidence, some my love of history, but my most influential teacher wasn’t a full-time teacher; she may not have had a teaching certificate. She was my first violin teacher.
Of course my most influential teachers of all, my parents, guided me to music. In fourth grade my mother suggested I begin violin lessons at Clearmount Elementary School in North Canton, but when I asked at school the program had begun and it was too late to join, so I enrolled in fifth grade.
The classes were held in the gymnasium/cafeteria — nowadays it would have a fancy combination name, but not so in the 1960s — with long tables that folded up into the walls, up for gym, down for lunch, and some were down for the violin class. I stood by one of the tables learning the names of the strings, barely able to hold the violin, and I clearly remember learning to hear the difference in pitch between strings, blowing into my pitch pipe to help in tuning, and my first song, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” I came to love string music that year, and to this day that love continues to deepen and intensify. My teacher was Margery Henke — she played viola in the Canton Symphony, was assistant director of the symphony and was director of the Canton Youth Symphony.

Changing my mandomotion

Published in The Alliance Review on Jan. 13, 2009
I’ve been playing guitar for 37 years and mandolin for 19, but I recently discovered a point of poor technique that I’ve unknowingly been practicing. I saw my problem while watching a DVD recorded in 2000 of my former band playing at a festival in Warren. On the opening medley of tunes, I played rhythm on octave mandolin and guitarist Mark played rhythm on guitar while Tom played a pair of Irish reels, “The Coalminer” and “The Silver Spear,” on whistle. Watching the video, I noticed that my strumming motion was limited to my wrist, whereas Mark strummed using his entire forearm. Looking further through the video, I found a tune where Tom played guitar, and he also strummed using his forearm. I next watched John Doyle on an Irish guitar teaching video and saw that John also strummed with the entire forearm, not the wrist.
I got out my octave mandolin and strummed it, and I played from the wrist just as in the video; I tried the guitar and did the same. My poor technique both surprised me and bothered me because in the early 1990s while first studying mandolin I had learned, at least in theory, that proper pick attack involves moving the pick perpendicular to the strings and that the wrist must move back and forth across the strings, not rotate, which causes the pick to make only partial contact. I knew that, but there I was doing the wrong thing.