Ayrton on illustration and music


After internalizing all of these separate qualities, the illustrator won’t draw any one particular mushroom, but the essence of that mushroom, and translate it into his or her interpretation, style, and even emotional response in a way that most people can understand.

You see what I’m getting to now: Isn’t this exactly what musicians do? Isn’t it why computer generated music will never replace the interpretation of a piece by flesh and blood musicians ? The tempo might not be as stable as one generated by a Macintosh, the pitch might vary slightly, but the result is not about ”photographic” rendering of a score. It’s about deconstructing and reimagining in real time the essence of what the composer was trying to express.




Dr. Robert Greenberg on “What is Music”

Here’s an extended quote from the audio course Understanding the Fundamentals of Music by Robert Greenberg, lecture 1.

Music is a language; a mode of sonic communication through which a tremendous amount of information of all sorts — aesthetic, stylistic, emotional and so forth– can be transferred with an ease that belies its complexity. […] I would suggest that music is the ultimate language — a mega language — a language in which our hard-wired proclivities to use successions of pitches and sounds to communicate are exaggerated, intensified, and codified into a sonic experience capable of infinitely more expressive depth and nuance than mere words alone. […] The great mid-century composer, Roger Sessions (who was the teacher of my teacher, a gentleman named Andrew Imbrie) said that music is the “controlled movement of sound in time”. Although we respectfully ask, “Controlled by whom?” Our working definition will draw on what is best from Sessions’ definition. Music is sound in time — or, if you prefer — time ordered by sound. That’s it! And that’s enough. That definition isolates the two essential aspects of music — sound and time — without any qualifications.

Notes from Piano Lessons

Since I am pouring my heart out this morning, here are some observations on my piano lessons.

I love my piano instructor. She reminds me so much of my choir director. High standards; patient, but a little ascerbic. Here is a difference, though. When my choir director would say “Ladies, you sound like wimpy little girls. I need a strong tone”, I knew exactly what to do. With piano — I play something and finally manage to get through it with minimal stumbling — my teacher says “Good. But all I could hear was the left hand” — I literally CAN NOT do it. My left hand isn’t coordinated enough to control the pressure. When I try to touch the keys lightly, I often produce no sound at all. I have a long, long way to go before my piano experiences are anything like my choir experiences.

Here are some of the Big Revelations I’ve gotten from lessons so far —

  • sitting like a tripod formed by legs and “sit bones” — then move from the waist. LLLLLEAN to the right or left to reach the higher / lower notes of the piano. DO NOT scoot with your butt on the piano bench, DO NOT sit on a chair with rolling wheels while you practice.
  • lifting the hands between phrases. Do not treat the piano like a typewriter.
  • If you are playing equally forcefully with both hands, the left hand will overwhelm the right because the piano strings are longer and thicker. Bring out the melody even if it travels from one hand to the other.
  • Sharp and flat key signatures are no more dangerous than the other keys. Get to know them. They will not bite you. Well, they may “bite” (when you miss a black key) but it’s not a poisonous bite. Recover and move on.
  • If you are playing and something starts to hurt, you are doing something wrong. It shouldn’t hurt.
  • The “Bach boys” are fascinating — they lived during a small slice of music history during which many changes were made. (This was an eye-opener for me because all my music history comes from the audio courses of Dr. Robert Greenberg. There’s no course on the Bach Boys.)

Snowy day; feeling discouraged

This is our first snowstorm of the season. I’m always a timid driver and normally I would have no issues with taking time off class. The problem is that I’ve missed a lot of classes already. I had a big family project that had to be done by Monday. That took up my normal homework and practice time. I could have been disciplined and managed to do both the home project AND my music work, but instead I took the usual amount of time to escape and to take a look at the outside world (checking Twitter and my favorite political blogs). It’s as if the hours in my day form a pie chart, and my music hours were taken over by the project. All the other slices of the pie stayed the same. I could have changed this; earlier in the semester when this sort of thing happened, I would cram the homework in no matter what else was going on — usually by skimping on sleep and taking naps on the weekend.

The result of the sleep-skimping is that I got sick and I’m still carrying the aftereffects of that. I’m not in a lot of pain anymore but I still have symptoms. I’m on an expensive medication and on a very restrictive diet. I think the restrictive diet makes it harder to resist the temptations of Twitter and my favorite blogs.

So the big stumbling blocks this semester have been 1) getting sick 2) taking care of that (doctor appointments, meds / diet) 3) big family project 4) the midterm elections.

I’ve been very invested in politics for the past few years — starting when the fight for the Affordable Care Act was being debated — and I’ve followed the ebb and flow of the conflicts, the cast of characters. I’ve rejoiced with the victories and been worn down by the losses. I remember staying up late to watch the vote on ACA repeal and saw John McCain give the thumbs down (saving at least part of the ACA). I was up til 3 am watching the midterm election results come in last week, and have been obsessively reading the blogs I follow to see what the aftermath has been.

It’s just been in the last few days that I’ve been able to breathe a sigh of relief. Looks like the ACA is safe for now; looks like a lot of environment-destroying legislation will be (mostly) blocked. The most uplifting news is that a LOT of younger people — including women and people of color — have been added to Congress. I read that the average age of congressional members has gone down 10 years because of this incoming class!

I’m happy that this new group of people is coming in — even though all of their legislative ideas will be blocked by the Senate. During this time they can formulate policies and build energy. I have hope that in 2 years they will have some ability to bring these policies forward.

Even when progressive politicians have some control, there is enough of a range in their priorities and opinions that moving forward is not a sure thing. Earlier this week our youngest new member of congress, Alexandria Occasio-Cortez, took part in a climate demonstration in front of Nancy Pelosi’s office. Was the democratic party splitting over this important issue? It turns out, no, it was an opportunity to bring attention to the issue and for Pelosi and AOC to express solidarity. There were a lot of hot takes on Twitter though, and I worried over each one.

All of this taking time and mental energy away from school.

This week I didn’t have the energy to force myself out the door. It’s always difficult for me to go to class when I don’t have the homework done; hard to go to lesson if I haven’t practiced enough. It takes courage and energy to force through the fear and worry; a sort of hammy boldness, putting on a role, getting out there, taking the consequences, bouncing back. Even when the bounces have turned out well, they still were bruising. All semester I have been struggling against the head wind of my own worries and self-consciousness and fear of judgement. It is exhausting and I chose to take a break, get caught up, get in out of the wind. Now it’s hard to get back on my feet.

I can remember the Chromatic Solfege assignment — staying up til 2 am, studying on the bus, singing in my car on the way to the bus stop, sitting in my hideaway in the stairwell, practicing, practicing. I was terrified. It took courage to decide “OK, I’m only going to learn PART of this, I’ll take the C but at least I’ll have that part down solid”. Then the test was postponed; I don’t know if we will ever get credit for having done it. I’m proud to have learned it — I think it has carried over and helped in other areas (intonation, sight reading) — but I feel bruised by the process. Not the assignment itself but the stress of my own reaction to it.

Every time I raise my hand in class — and feel stupid afterward — is a bruise. “Seriously Carol, did you have to SING the bass line to Dido’s Lament, nobody has heard of it but you and the prof, just answer the question and shut up”.

Doing a make up exam — in a drafty hallway — with a drummer practicing a samba rhythm in one ear and in my other ear a pianist forging away at arpeggios — was bruising. Not to mention having to re-schedule the exam twice because I mis-read the family calendar.

It takes about an hour and a half to get to class — half an hour to the bus stop, half an hour on the bus, and about 20 minutes before class. When I have energy I use this as an opportunity to study.  I do vocal exercises in the car, experimenting with feeling the resonance as I make different sounds. I use my large-print solfeggio book, or flash cards, on the bus. Hallway time is great for last-minute reviews before class. But it’s stressful — that’s about 3 hrs out of my pie chart of time.

Well, this has turned into more of a journal entry than a post. But in conclusion.

Music school. Positive or negative?

Overwhelmingly positive experience — I love my instructors and fellow students — and I’m learning so much and have made so much progress already — but the act of BEING A STUDENT is too much for me. I suck at it. I’m tired of dealing with my own inadequacies. Executive function, being on time, taking care of my health — I suck at it. I should have stuck with taking online courses. Then I wouldn’t be having bland chamomile tea and white rice for breakfast. I wouldn’t feel sick with guilt because it’s snowing and  I’m afraid to drive in the snow.

Well — getting discouraged, feeling like a failure, and wanting to quit are all legit parts of the musician’s experience. I guess this is my topic for this week. Dealing with Failure and Self-Loathing.

I got through the week on Transposition and the week on Chromatic Solfege; maybe I can do this one too.


Some thoughts on Franz Liszt

According to https://www.pianoscales.org/hungarian.html, the Hungarian Gypsy scale is like a harmonic minor except that the 4th is raised. The Harmonic minor sounds strange and exotic because of the large gap between the sixth and seventh scale degrees. The Hungarian Gypsy scale has another large gap: the pattern of semitones between notes of the scale is 2, 1, 3, 1, 1, 3, 1.

Accorging to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hungarian_gypsy_scale, this scale is identical to a ragam in Indian classical music called Simhendramadhyamam. It’s now known that the ancestors of the Romani people (“gypsies”) are from Northern India.

<blockquote>Europe’s largest minority group, the Romani, migrated from northwest India 1,500 years ago, new genetic study finds.</blockquote>

Here is an example of a song based on Simhendramadhyamam


I was curious to hear what Romani music sounds like. Here is a world famous group called Taraf de Haïdouks giving a surprise concert.

I spent the afternoon listening to Dr. Robert Greenberg’s lectures on Liszt (part of his “Great Masters” series of lectures). Here is a flying overview:

Franz Liszt’s father Adam was a musician who had once worked with the Esterhase family, where Haydn was employed as court musician. Later Adam moved to Raiding in Hungary. Franz was born there in 1811 and always thought of himself as Hungarian (though his parents were Austrian and the family spoke German at home). Franz was immersed in music from an early age. When he was 5 years old he heard a concerto and later that day sang it back for his father, who realized that his son might be another child prodigy like Mozart had been. During his childhood Franz became fascinated with the gypsy musicians camped outside of Raiding. The music seemed both ancient yet also vibrant, spontaneous and full of improvisation — and made him feel “literally dizzy”. Later Liszt would say about himself that he was “half Franciscan, half gypsy”.

Adam Liszt taught his son until he was about 10 yrs old. He then uprooted the family and moved to Vienna (then the capital of the musical world) and arranged for Franz to have lessons with Carl Czerny (who had been a student of Beethoven). Franz also had lessons in composition with Antonio Salieri. He gave his first public performance when he was 11. His father took him on a performing tour — very stressful for someone so young, but unlike Beethoven and Mozart, Liszt seemed to have a good relationship with his father rather than an abusive one. When Franz’ father died unexpectedly, he was devastated and went into a depression for several years.

Franz and his mother moved to Paris. While they were there the July Revolution of 1830 took place. This woke Franz up from his depression and he began to compose and to play again. While in Paris, Liszt saw Paganini in concert and said afterward “not only does he play well, but as well as it’s possible to play”. Liszt realized that he could become the Paganini of the piano — someone who could take the piano to its limits. The piano had only recently evolved into an instrument that could stand up to that kind of treatment. The new invention of the cast-iron frame made it possible to have more strings, that were thicker and strung more tightly — so it was possible to play with a much greater range of dynamics. And Sébastien Érard invented a new kind of key action that enabled a musician to repeat a single note much more rapidly. Because of the wide range of tone colors it could produce, Liszt thought of the piano as orchestral — one instrument encompassing many. As Liszt explored what he could do with the piano, he created Études (studies) which showcased different techniques. He returned to and updated these throughout his life.

Liszt was also inspired by the romanticism of Chopin and the wildly expressive program music of Berlioz. Something I was pleased to learn about was that Liszt was a very loyal friend to Chopin, Berlioz and others; during his concert tours made a point of publicizing their music. Liszt thought that Berlioz deserved much more recognition, and transcribed several of Berlioz’ symphonies into piano scores. He also transcribed the symphonies of Beethoven (whom he revered) and brought that music back into the public eye. Many of Liszt’s transcriptions were not strictly literal but more of a “re-imagining” of the pieces they were based on.

One of my favorite anecdotes about Liszt mentioned in Dr. Greenberg’s lectures was that friends would give Liszt an orchestra score that he had never seen before; Liszt would then turn it upside down and sight read it — “with musicality” — while simultaneously giving commentary on what he was playing. This leaves me in awe of what the human brain can be capable of. I’m also amazed that Liszt was able to have such an extensive concert career, giving more than a thousand recitals. How was he able to avoid carpal tunnel syndrome? This makes me think of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, who with his huge arms and short powerful legs seems genetically designed to swim. There was some incredibly rare combination of traits in Liszt’s brain and body that enabled him to achieve astounding feats of musicianship.

Here is an orchestral version


Thank you, Robert Greenberg

It’s Labor Day — Kevin is coming over for dinner. However, today I also have to try out the local bus to campus. I don’t want to be riding the bus for the first time when I have a class to get to! AND today is the day to make sure I have done the homework for Tuesday. The Theory reading assignment and workbook assignment are for Wednesday and they are clearly defined. The keyboard assignment for Tuesday is “keep going with what you’re working on”. I have saved up some questions so I think I’m prepared for that class. But Ear Training!!! I’m not even sure what we’re required to have ready for class #3. While looking over the syllabus and handouts I was beginning to wonder if I should have taken the remedial music course first! Reminds me of the summer I took Differential Equations. Differential equations uses derivatives and integrals, and you need to have those skills at your fingertips. When I took DiffyQ’s it had been a few semesters since I’d last had calculus. Also, I took the class during the summer (a shortened semester) so I shot myself in the foot from two different directions. One thing I do remember about that summer was that although I failed the class, I didn’t give up, and my exam grades actually improved as the semester went on. Not enough to pass the class — but enough to experience the feeling off working hard while “not doing well”. Pushing through discouragement.

I certainly hope I don’t fail Ear Training, but already I’m starting to have that sinking flailing feeling. (Have you seen the Curwen solfege handsigns for the accidentals?!?!?!) I have to tell myself –take a deep breath, stop thrashing around, and figure out what direction we’re swimming in!

So at this point in the semester my musical education consists of playing scales (badly), singing vowel sounds (and feeling apologetic for what my prof. has to listen to), and looking ahead into the rough and terrifying seas of sight reading. I see ugliness and incompetence, I feel fear and shame!

In the midst of this comes Dr. Robert Greenberg, like a fresh breeze and drink of cool water after mowing the lawn. I get caught up in the emotion and humor of his stories; it takes the spotlight off my own inner unpleasantness. And what he talks about relates directly to my goals as a composer. Today I’m listening to lecture 3 of Bach and the High Baroque. Greenberg spent several minutes comparing and contrasting two “hosanna”s — one written by Palestrina, and one from Bach’s Mass in B minor. Much of the difference had to do with time — the elapsed time (length of the compositions), and the way time was broken up (the rhythm).

I wish I had a transcript of that part of the lecture since what he said was so well-put. Here’s a paraphrase. I’ll try to get the quote later.

One of the most important things for a composer to consider is time.  If you don’t consider this carefully, your musical vision will not succeed, and your compositions will be flushed down the toilet of history. Exactly how long is each section? It must be long enough to get the listener sucked in — to draw them into your vision. But it must not be one second too long, or it will lose the effect. What is too long, beyond which I can’t ask them to be there? …Music is first: TIME. Time defined by sound. Any aspect of musical time is defined by rhythm. For the Bach hosanna — it is long enough for you to be drawn into his vision,  for our bodies to enter into the realm he creates. (Our bodies respond to the dance-like rhythm). For the Palestrina — very short — not able to be drawn in. What if it had gone on for 30 minutes?  You either would transcend earthly existence and have a vision of God, or you would be dead or asleep. 

This is so important for  TLOT300W. I have sketched out what mood I want for each planet; I’ve given some thought on how to orchestrate this. But …how long is it?



My most recent Robert Greenberg course

I used to listen to Dr. Greenberg’s audio courses while driving and doing housework. This summer I started back up with Fundamentals of Music. I pretty much finished reviewing that one, although I used a couple of the lectures to help me fall asleep, so I might be a bit vague on those.

Today I started up again with Bach and the High Baroque. This is a longer course than Fundamentals, but not as long as the survey of western music class. It’s 32 lectures. I plan to listen to them during the day rather than while falling asleep, so that I can be sure not to miss anything.

I listened to lectures 1 and 2 today while cleaning the aviary. One thing that struck me was the talk about Bach’s extended family of musicians – how the relatives would get together and, after singing some serious hymns, would then do spoof versions of popular songs. I think the adjective Greenberg used was “ribald”.  Bach also had a close relationship with “his prince” — he worked for him for 6 years — composing music for someone who loved his work. I tend to think of Bach as a lonely genius, and it’s nice to have that image replaced. I do remember that he loved his wife and children, and was devastated at the death of his first wife, and of one of his daughters. He created music especially for his wife and children, for them to play and learn from.


Look, this one actually shows the fingering notation in Bach’s own hand!


Update after the First Week of Class

The first week of class was not what I was expecting.

  • Missing the first class because of parking trouble — and then having brake problems on the way home. This was very much like one of my anxiety dreams. Greg’s comment was “What are you complaining about. You had your clothes on, didn’t you?”
  • Needing Greg to drive me to classes because my car was in the shop
  • Last minute decision to take keyboard lessons
  • At that late date can’t register online — has to be in person — with paperwork. Chasing down signatures, making a stop at an office and then at what we used to call the Bursar’s office. “How do I get my schedule?” “It’s right there on the papers I gave you”.
  • Keyboard class is not lecture based. Instead, there is a list of skills that we must be able to demonstrate by the end of the semester. (Greg said it’s like my son’s proficiency requirements for his black belt exam.) We have the list, and we spend class working on our own — with the presence and availability of the prof. This is why I decided to add keyboard lessons! Piano’s very different from organ.
  • Ear training (so far) has not been the neat methodical progression that it is in Ear Master. It is more like a race through a wind tunnel.
  • I got 2 faculty members’ names mixed up in an embarrassing way even though I tried to do my research ahead of time and study their photos.
  • Voice lessons make my sinuses feel weird.
  • All the handouts are posted in the ether, in this shadow-realm with many facets, and we’re expected to print them out ourselves. I’m still not sure I’ve found all the places the documents can be hidden.

Things I did expect.

  • Being hungry — not figuring out what to take for lunch
  • Feeling awkward talking to students
  • Feeling awkward participating in class (The “Hermione Effect”)
  • Enthusiasm because of enthusiastic profs
  • Absolutely exhausted

More unexpected things!

  • Playing scales before bed makes me sleepy, in a good way.
  • I got a lovely orientation (about composition) from the prof. who designed the ear training class. This woman is a treasure. I didn’t expect her to take me seriously or to understand what I was getting at.
  • Basically feeling VERY welcomed!
  • Choir rehearsal started up again, had not seen my friends since 15 lbs ago. No comments except from one guy who asked me if I’d been sick (!).
  • Working on scales, getting distracted by improvisation, then feeling frustrated because I can’t play what I hear in my head. Left hand pinky finger hurts.
  • Trying to copy out some choir music by hand, feeling frustrated with my grade-school printing. Feeling like I’m already behind the other students and running to catch up.

I did not expect MUSIC BOOT CAMP