January 2015 Deanery

January 2015 Deanery


The Deaneryby Kari Miller Magg

An organ is not a piano. A piano is not an organ. We all know this, but I wonder how often we stop to consider how very little the two instruments have in common. Both are keyboard instruments and both play music which is usually written in treble and bass clefs. There the similarities end. Most of us need to switch back and forth between the two instruments, but playing re- spectably on both is not always an easy proposition, no matter which side of the fence we come from. The skills and techniques needed for one or the other may be related, but they are not automatically transferable.

It seems to me that many of our failures and frustrations have to do with not knowing how to properly listen and react to what we hear. We are all taught to ‘listen’ as we practice, but what exactly are we listening for, beyond the right notes and rhythm? Think about it – a pianist is taught to listen, evaluate and react with hair-trigger response to each sound, to carefully balance each chord, to shape the melody ‘just so.’ Hours and hours are spent developing the fine finger control to achieve those subtle inflections that are the life-blood of expressive piano playing. Sadly, very little of it is of any use on the organ. No wonder that to many pianists the organ feels like an unmusical, unwieldy behemoth. Even something as basic as just playing in time can seem difficult without the ability to ‘feel’ the pulse in one’s fingers.

Instead of simply laying the blame on the organ, the pianist-turned-organist needs to approach the task completely differently, to get the ears and brain and imagination working together like a giant super- computer, weighing all available options and choosing the solutions that sound best for the highest percentage of the time. It is a lot like figuring out a puzzle. The good organist listens for the ‘big picture,’ even while attending to the difficult tasks of keeping hands and feet playing strictly together and achieving the desired touch.

The organist going to the piano has a different set of issues to over- come. Listening only for the big picture on the piano is like playing an organ with only one or two stops to choose from. The organist- turned-pianist may find the piano ‘boring,’ may complain about the unchanging, bland character of the sound, or may relegate the instrument solely to the utilitarian arena. What a mistake that is!  So many wonderful colors and textures are available on the piano, but they don’t happen by themselves (or even at the push of a button). The novice needs to experiment, to actively search for and learn how to produce the wide range of sounds that will bring the music to life.

An organ is not a piano. A piano is not an organ. Yet each is beautiful, demanding and worthy of our best efforts.

September 2014 Deanery

by Kari Miller

The DeaneryIt’s been quite a few years since I attended school, yet every year when September rolls around I still get that “back to school” feeling. It’s a weird mixture of excitement and dread, with hope and fear jostling for supremacy as the blank slate of a new year looms ahead. We bustle about gathering our supplies, get- ting ourselves ready, preparing for either the familiar or the unknown, or both at the same time. There isa faint tinge of sadness hovering around the edges, sadness at the passing of the carefree days of summer, but then the new routine kicks in and we are on our way.They say that most people have dreams about their schooldays throughout their entire lives. I certainly do; the dreams of high school always feature a lost locker combination and the college-era dreams usually involve an impending final exam in a class thatI didn’t attend but forgot to drop. (That one is more like a nightmare, but not as bad as a performance- anxiety dream!) All kidding aside though, somehow my school days do not seem so far away or long ago, and I do not feel myself to be so different from the person I was then. I am still learning and study- ing and yes, (in the school of life) still taking tests and making good or bad grades.

We probably all feel ourselves to be educators of some sort, whether
or not we officially “teach.” We are constantly educating our choirs and our congregations, sharing our ideas and insights with those who find our music a somewhat mysteri- ous business. We should remember that we all are also students. Our student days never end. If we are to thrive and grow as musicians (and as people) we need to keep on learning – learning all sorts of things. We learn by practicing and performing, by attending concerts and workshops, by reading, by talking with colleagues, by follow- ing our trails of interest, by asking questions (and listening to the answers); we even learn from our failures and disappointments. If we pay attention, we can learn a lot every day about ourselves, about other people, the world, life and of course music.

What a privilege to be in a profession which offers so many opportunities to learn! There will always be a new organ piece or choir anthem to add to the repertoire, a new modulation or unusual registration to experiment with, a new skill to add to the toolbox. We are never too old or too accomplished to learn something new. Hopefully we are never too set in our ways or too bored to be interested in learning something new. Learning new things, things that we choose  to learn, things that truly engage us, can be tremendously rewarding and empowering.

So, even though a few of my lazy bones are groaning, even though my inner child is screaming “too soon!,” even though I didn’t get through half of my summer ‘to-do’ list, I still say – it’s September and it’s “back to school” for me!

December Deanery

December 2013 Deanery by Jason Roberts

The DeaneryA couple of years ago, I was stopped in West Hartford center by a man taking a poll for public radio. What did I think of background music, he asked. I dutifully told him that background music is evil because it trains people to ignore music. There is music going on all the time around us: during movies, in the store while we shop, even in the bathrooms at the Olive Garden!  This music isn’t intended to be listened to: in fact, many times we don’t even notice that it’s there at all, so well have we trained ourselves to not listen. In films, we pay attention to the visual clues and dialogue:  if we don’t we won’t understand the plot.  The music is not important- it’s background.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that audiences for concerts are diminishing.  If you ignore the music and pay attention only to the visuals on the stage (and possibly the verbal program notes which are increasingly popular and increasing in length!), there’s not much to interest a concertgoer.  Is it possible to ignore music in our daily lives and then suddenly pay close attention when we attend a concert?

I sometimes notice at the weddings of friends and relatives the consequences of our background music culture.  Flowers at weddings are often very impressive.  Enormous amounts of time and effort are put into the clothes and the food. But most often the music is either recorded or very poorly performed.  Would the bride consider having fake flowers at her ceremony?  Would she have McDonald’s cater the reception? Then why have recorded music?  It’s because the music is background and therefore not important.

Will all this background music ever go away? Music can cause so much joy, and can be full of interest; it’s
a terrible thing to ignore. If background music could be a gateway into the appreciation of music for its’ own sake, then it might deserve a little credit; but it seems to create a world full of musical zombies.  As Psalm 135 says: “They have ears, but hear not; neither is there any breathe in their mouths.”

After I had finished my rant, the poor fellow from public radio thanked me and moved on to the next interview. I don’t know if any of my statements made it onto his show. I never listen to the radio: too much background music.

October Deanery

The Deanery – by Jason Roberts

I know that lots of historians have speculated about where music is headed: we can see looking backwards how the chant of the middle ages turned into renaissance polyphony, and how this gave way to the baroque and then the galant style. And then we can trace how composers gradually extended their harmonic language through the romantic period until we ended up with twelve-tone serialism. It does seem, as some of the historians say, that composers today just imitate music of one period or another, and this seems a little unfortunate. Where will music go next?

The DeaneryHow did composers in the past come up with new compositional styles? It seems that it was often by combining ideas from the music that they heard around them: folk music was an inspiration to the composers of the early classical period and also very important
to those in the late nineteenth century. Asian music inspired lots of early twentieth-century Europeans, and more recently all kinds of non-musical sounds have been fashioned into some kind of music by adventurous composers.

Although I think a lot of today’s popular music is horrible, maybe something about it will prove to be a seed for the music of the future. And perhaps we, as organists, are well placed to be on the forefront of new music. While much “art” music is composed without much regard for the average uneducated listener, as organists we often encounter these people week after week when we work at religious institutions. In churches and syna- gogues all over the place there are very talented musicians struggling to reconcile the kind of music that they think is valuable with what their congregations are wanting.

I wonder if, rather than being the death of religious art-music, this conflict could actually bring about something new and worthy. After all, art music has been popular in the past. Why not in the future?

Before I end, I want to mention one practical item. I trust that many of you have been to our new website at www.hartfordago.org. One of its best features is the concert calendar, which we share with several other AGO chapters in our region. You may view the concert offerings in Worcester or Springfield, and they may view ours. But… we have to list our concerts in order for others to see them!   Train yourself to put your concerts on the regional calendar.  Its free and so easy that even I can do it! Under “Programs and Events” choose “Submit Regional Calendar Event.”  This is a great advertising tool. Let’s use it!

Deanery – September 2013

September Deanery 2013

by Jason Roberts

What a summer it has been for our chapter! Hosting a Regional Convention is a huge undertaking, and we’re so lucky to have dedicated volunteers who are not only reliable but can do their jobs very well. We were warned when planning for the convention began that the AGO had declined in membership significantly since Hartford last hosted a convention.  We were told not to expect the same attendance and it is true that attendance was a little lower this time, but with a total of 253 registrations I think we did very well.  The concerts and workshops were excellent, and it seems that unpleasant experiences with buses and hotels were at a minimum.  Our chapter members really did an enormous amount of work to make this possible: so a big “Thank you!” to all of you.

The DeaneryMany of you may have missed the launch of our new website in all the excitement of the convention:  Kari Magg and Amy Vinisko worked very hard to have the site ready for the week of the convention.  Why? Well, now there is a place to post pictures from the convention: forward any good pictures you might have to me for posting in the photo gallery (music@stjameswh.org).

There’s also a forum for discussion – was there a recital you loved or didn’t love?  We’d love to get your opinion!  Be the first to chime in on convention-related topics. One very useful feature is the regional con- cert calendar; concerts from all over our area are listed on the home page on the righthand side.  AGO members in Worcester and other nearby chapters are trained to post their concerts on this calendar, so at the moment it’s a little heavy with Massachusetts events. Our job is to fix the imbalance: post your events on this calendar. It’s free advertising and your colleagues really do want to know what’s going on in the Hartford area.  If you’re really lucky, some of them might even attend some concerts!

It’s an exciting time for our chapter don’t retreat into your organ loft just because the convention is over. Take a look at our website.  Consider coming to some chapter events.  Invite your friends to join the chapter.  Post a concert on the calendar!