Musings of a Transplanted Southerner on a Life in Music–Models and Inspiration

Both as pianist and composer, I have rather wide-ranging tastes in music. However, I invariably find myself returning time and again to a handful of composers who have always served as both models and inspiration for me.

I think of them in different categories, as each composer represents various aspects of my own music making and thinking about music:

JS Bach and Igor Stravinsky: Both composers embraced many of the styles of their times and enhanced and excelled in them. Incredible bodies of work.
Bach’s Art of Fugue excerpt with Glenn Gould
Beethoven: Able to exist in widely divergent emotional and psychological spaces within the same work–often within the same 60 seconds! And he had a wonderful sense of historical vision and of the role that music can play in social commentary and aspiring to be greater than we are.
Beethoven Symphony 7 mvt 3 with Bernstein conducting!
Chick Corea and Alberto Ginastera: Remaining true to their cultural roots, but redefining their respective art forms and existing as musical citizens of the world.
Chick Corea and Gary Burton I love these Tiny Desk concerts from NPR!
Ginastera Piano Concerto #1 mvt 4 with the amazing Joao Carlos Martins
Who are your models and sources of inspiration and, more importantly, why?
JS Bach statue in Leipzig
Stravinsky photo in Paris
Stravinsky in Paris
Beethoven young man 2
Beethoven as a young man just arrived in Vienna
Chick Corea
Chick Corea
Ginastera in the ’60’s

Musings of a Transplanted Southerner on a Life in Music–Dystopian Magic

Upon completion of my “Concerto Grosso on Dystopian Themes”, I’m aware as never before of the magic that can accompany the marriage of music and story.

The excitement generated by the students of Chute Middle School (Evanston, IL) around this project is palpable. The student-written dystopian short story which lies at the heart of this collaborative  work is inventive and compelling. The music is designed to be varied and rich, providing the orchestral players an opportunity to delve into an array of styles and textures.

One new wrinkle in this project is the inclusion of chorus into the work. Their part bookends the piece and is based on the Gregorian chant “Ave Maris Stella” (Hail, O Star of the Sea), interjecting at first a sense of timeless beauty and, later, of hope into the musical landscape of this work.

In-between, the players explore Mexican dance rhythms, Chance music, Shostakovich-inspired shenanigans, 12-bar blues structure, fugal form and minimalism. Not bad for middle schoolers.

The third movement, my favorite, includes a Lament for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano–followed immediately by a three-voice fugue based on another Medieval tune, the popular 15th-Century French folk song “L’homme arme” (the armed man). This tune was arguably the most-used tune of this period in Europe, forming the basis of mass settings (I love this setting by Guillaume Dufay (1397-1474), as well as this one by Giovanni Palestrina (1525-1594)) and innumerable instrumental settings (such as this one played by Hesperion XXI and the Oxford Camerata).

The L’homme arme tune and message of “beware the armed man” have also inspired other contemporary works (such as Karl Jenkins’ “The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace”).

It’s good material, musically and poetically. In the context of my concerto grosso, the “L’homme arme” tune is first introduced by the xylophone and then quickly taken up by the rest of the orchestra in fugal fashion.

I continue to feel strongly that the commissioning of new works (musical, visual, poetic, dance and so on) which are directly connected to and inspired by the work that students are doing in their academic classes is to everyone’s benefit. What a wonderful example of STEAM-based collaborative learning!

The performance of my “Concerto Grosso on Dystopian Themes” will take place at Chute Middle School on Tuesday, May 8th at 7 pm as part of their spring concert. This work is also a personal milestone for me, as it is the first composition in my Blue Lotus Music series.

Musings of a Transplanted Southerner on a Life in Music–The Dystopian Landscape

I’m working on the most fun project ever!

As a continuation of my years-long commitment to bringing innovative (and did I mention fun?) collaborative multi-disciplinary projects to our local District 65 elementary and middle schools (Evanston/Skokie, IL), I’ve created a concept that’s really floating my composition-oriented boat this academic year.

I’m working alongside the language arts and orchestra teachers and their students at  Chute Middle School to create a multi-movement “Concerto Grosso Based On Dystopian Themes” for the school’s Honors Orchestra. This five-movement work will incorporate some elements of composition styles that the orchestra players probably won’t be too familiar with (such as chance, Latino, quartal, minimalistic and fugal elements).

As I work on the musical end of things, Chute students will be exploring the dystopian genre, learning about and working with the elements of structure in good story writing and, finally, crafting an original story. This final story will be interwoven into the body of the concerto grosso, to be read in five sections between movements.

Check out this wonderful presentation which is designed to attract Chute students into the “Dystopian Drafters Society”: Dystopian Storytelling.

There are many ways to incorporate impactful artistic elements into STEM-oriented curriculum (thereby creating STEAM!). I personally prefer a very hands-on and creative approach, where the students have significant input into the process and the teachers are in many ways steering the project forward. It’s the teachers who know their students best–and understand their own needs, in terms of supplemental projects which can enhance their curriculum. I see my role as being a creative ally who brings a different perspective on the marriage of music and academic disciplines.

More to come, as this project unfolds…



Musings of a Transplanted Southerner on a Life in Music–The End of Time

I believe that we each have a musical soundtrack that accompanies us throughout our lives–highlighting particular events, relationships, passions and projects. My personal soundtrack has paralleled my own growth and life changes. Many pieces and songs come and go–including those that I’ve studied, performed and written.

There are, however, those works that I continue to have a relationship with and that have grown within me as I’ve continued on my life’s journey.

Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” is one such work. For me, it is perhaps the most important chamber work of the 20th Century. Written during Messiaen’s internment in a German concentration camp during WWII, it is an exploration of the nature of time and our relationship to its passage.

After having performed this quartet over twenty times (and counting!), I find myself often reflecting on many of the messages contained within it–almost as a code of sorts which operates on multiple levels simultaneously: Rhythmic, harmonic and melodic cycles at play–revealing Messiaen’s ability to view profound experiences through a fascinating religious/spiritual lens (with a good portion of ornithology to boot).

Without exception, every performance of this quartet has been an event–a moving experience for players and audience alike. It’s just one of those transformative pieces that both invites and demands committed listening and presence. The course of this music, from movement to movement, opens a space for contemplation and, indeed, moves us beyond the constraints of our temporal world. By gradually stripping away our sense of time’s passage, Messiaen brings us to a place where we can connect to our shared humanity.

This is a work of unity, of hope–a celebration of the human spirit. As such, it is a timeless piece–in all ways.

This is not a piece for casual listening. I invite you to set aside an hour and simply commune with Messiaen’s vision–and see what message it has for you.


Musings of a Transplanted Southerner on a Life in Music–The Myth of the Eternal Child

As I prepare for an upcoming lecture-recital presentation on the very young Mozart, specifically how his formative musical experiences happened to a great extent during the three-plus years of travel that his family undertook between 1763-1765 through much of Europe, I find myself referring to the wonderful research and writing of Maynard Solomon in his book, “Mozart”.

In discussing this early period of Mozart’s life–the incredible stir his talents caused among crowned heads, music cognoscenti and scientists alike–Solomon coined the phrase “The Myth of the Eternal Child” when discussing the young Mozart’s impact on Enlightenment thinking of the time, especially regarding child-rearing. The imminent 18th-Century music historian and traveler, Charles Burney, described Mozart as possessing “prodigious and supernatural talents”, citing the child’s uncanny ability to read even the most complicated music at sight, play entire works with absolute accuracy after a single hearing, as well as demonstrate various “parlor tricks” (playing blindfolded or with a satin cloth placed over the keyboard).

The nine year-old Mozart was also examined (tested) by various members of the Royal Society during his fifteen-month stay in London, who later published the results in the publication “Philosophical Transactions of 1770”. These various examinations not only served to confirm the almost unimaginable extent of Mozart’s talents, but also fueled the  legend which was quickly growing up around him.

Indeed, Mozart (as Solomon thoughtfully expands on) had to contend with the “myth” of his younger self for the rest of his life–including a very difficult and conflicted period of time around the mid-1770’s when he began to break away from his highly complicated relationship with his father (Leopold) and older sister (Marianne–known as ‘Nannerl’ in the Mozart family) and establish his identity as a mature composer and musician–ultimately resulting in his relocation to Vienna from the family home in Salzburg, Austria.

Reading Solomon’s thoughts on this period in Mozart’s life reminded me of the tendency various societies have which idealizes (even idolizes) childhood as a time of unlimited potential, often unencumbered by the accumulation of life experiences. In Mozart’s case, it seems that he was indeed sheltered from much of the external world during much of his early childhood, so that his latent talents could be nurtured undisturbed by any other concerns.

I also began to wonder what would happen if our public schools became primarily places of exploration and creation, instead of of test and assessment-driven factories?  What would happen if academic teachers were given much more freedom to design and teach their curricula (in other words, to be trusted as the highly-skilled and knowledgeable professionals that they are)?

What would the result be if STEM-based curricula were not even considered without a robust and engaging arts-based component? (How much more research do we need to validate the efficacy of STEAM-based curricula? The arts have always been a most effective doorway to learning excellence.)

Even though the young Mozart represents an extreme degree of prodigious talent, we all have latent talents and abilities which can flourish, given the proper support and encouragement (not to mention funding!). I view my role as a teacher as being primarily two-fold: To model and share a creative life with my students and to also assist and inspire others to be their most creative selves. That’s my personal artistic mission and it’s the gift that many good teachers have given to me–one which I wish to honor by passing it along to my students and colleagues.

Musings of a Transplanted Southerner on a Life in Music–We Go To Art…

We humans go to art.

In tragedy, in celebration, in joy and in sorrow we seek solace and inspiration in art–in all of its forms.  Art binds us together, mirrors our experiences, magnifies them.  Art provides an indispensable lens through which we view and express our place in the world.

Art is necessary to the human experience–art IS the human experience.  I’m drawn, naturally, to the role that music plays in processing major personal, societal and global events. I would imagine that I’m not the only person who has an ongoing soundtrack for my life.

How about when the Berlin wall fell? Berlin celebration!

And the funeral of Princess Diana? Diana’s funeral

The closing ceremony of the 911 museum? 911 museum dedication

The U.S. is experiencing a period of significant polarization and division–highlighted by a significant cultural disconnect. Knowing what a powerful force music can be (for political commentary, protest and unification),  I’m constantly thinking of ways that I can be a force for positive communication, understanding and change in my own small corner of the world.

I look to others who have ridden the waves of change before me as inspiration, Beethoven in particular. As a young man, he found himself in the middle of very tumultuous times. The French Revolution and subsequent rise of Napoleon initially promised hope to many who longed for a more egalitarian society–only to have their hopes dashed as Napoleon declared himself dictator.

However, Beethoven’s “Heroic” symphony emerged from this experience as a testament to ‘Fraternite, Egalite, Liberte’.  Beethoven last words on the subject were “It’s a pity I do not understand the art of war as well as I do the art of music. I would conquer him!”

Beethoven did understand, however, powerful impact that much of his music had on others–and that music could be used as an agent of change (9th Symphony, anyone?). Beethoven nine!

I find myself entering into a period of increased self-reflection, given the present cultural climate–and plan to redouble my own meager efforts to bring about positive change through music.

My best to all.


Musings of a Transplanted Southerner on a Life in Music–Mentors

As I prepare to enter into my 30th(!) year of teaching, I’ve been reflecting on those artists who have touched me, mentored me and taught me–those who have gone before me and have inspired me to walk my own artistic path.  There have been four teachers, in particular, who have shaped my music making, my relationship to the piano and my teaching.  I carry a small part of each of them with me throughout my life’s journey.  These wonderful artists are, for me, those who have guided and continue to guide me.  They are my esteemed and treasured mentors.

Roy McAllister: As a teenage piano student in Alabama in the ’70’s, “Mr. Mac” represented the height of piano teaching in the state.  A long-time presence at the University of Alabama, I came to him later in his teaching career and chose to attend Birmingham-Southern College specifically to work with him.  All of his students were deeply saddened by his sudden passing in October of 1979.

Mr. Mac instilled in his students a deep love of and fascination with the endless sound possibilities of the piano.  He retained an almost child-like, but sophisticated, sense of wonder toward music and the piano throughout his later years–and helped me to understand not only how to appreciate beauty of sound, but how to be truly present with the music in each moment.  I can still hear him singing the various melodic lines in Chopin’s Op. 27, Nr. 1 nocturne during my lessons–I learned to sing with my students from Mr. Mac–as well as through my fingers.

Daniel Ericourt: A child prodigy, Mr. Ericourt studied at the Paris Conservatoire during the time of Debussy.  In fact, he told me stories of playing with Debussy’s daughter Chou-Chou and of attending master classes with “the master”.  His playing was the epitome of the French School–transparent, fluid, but also muscular when needed.  He was obsessed with creating color through layering sounds one over the other.  Mr. Ericourt taught me how to think about music from a 3-dimensional perspective.

Some of my fondest memories are of sitting in the corner of his studio as he prepared for upcoming recitals.  I listened and observed.  I came to understand how to create a sense of natural arc in every piece–and how to deftly incorporate the pedals to layer and color sound.  His playing and manner were French to the core–full of joie de vivre and old-world charm.  I’ll never forget the many kindnesses that Mr. Ericourt showed me.

Indeed, it was Mr. Ericourt who brought me to the Eastern Music Festival in Greensboro, NC, where I had the very good fortune to meet…

Deborah Sobol: I met Debbie at the beginning of her teaching career while she was living in Cambridge, MA and teaching at the Longy School of Music.  We immediately developed a strong rapport with each other, so much so that I spent the next year working with her at Longy.  Debbie had spent several years studying in Vienna and London–a significant portion of that time as a student of Alfred Brendel.  She was a meticulous teacher, player and technician (in the most elevated sense of the word).

Debbie showed me how to develop my technical equipment, always in the service of a greater musical and expressive goal.  She also opened the door to a life-long love of chamber music–a love which was to become my primary musical passion.  I remember spending hours exploring Bach, Haydn and Brahms together–always learning music deeply, fully, from the inside out.  We discussed the teaching of Brendel and Artur Schnabel, his teacher.  Debbie taught me how to practice–and how to LOVE practicing.  I’m forever in her debt–she was such a gifted teacher.

Years later, she brought me to Chicago (where she had relocated) to be part of a fledgling educational outreach program sponsored by the newly-formed Chicago Chamber Musicians.  This soon grew into a senior fellowship program.  I created some lasting relationships during this time, learned the ropes of working artistically in the community and played lots of chamber music with some amazing artists.  Little did I know at the time that the skills I gained with CCM would later translate into the creation of The Musical Offering in Evanston (my own musical love child).

Everyone who knew Debbie was deeply affected by her sudden and unexpected passing in 2014.  She was a force of nature–a visionary–a wonderful mom–one of the greatest collaborative pianists I’ve ever heard–a direct connection to Schnabel’s teaching–but, at the end of the day, Debbie was simply my teacher.

Abbey Simon: Grace, elegance, ease and style–Mr. Simon continues (at age 93!) to dazzle audiences with his wonderful lyricism and transcendent artistry.  Memories of hearing his Chopin B Minor Sonata live still make my spine tingle.

From Mr. Simon I learned how to tackle and solve large musical challenges–how to think critically at a higher level and to dissect problems into their smaller components.  He was a master diagnostician at the keyboard–so wise, abrasive, hilarious and inhabiting the highest reaches of his craft.  Everything he touches turns to gold–and Mr. Simon’s catalog of recorded works is truly impressive (my favorite being his complete recordings of all of Ravel’s solo works–magical!).

I also learned from Mr. Simon how to gain the respect of fellow artists by following my interests and passions and devoting myself to them entirely.  This is a shared characteristic of all great artists–and I’ve have the privilege of being mentored and taught by four very generous and goodhearted musicians in a sea of excellence.

This is my way of recognizing and thanking them and all great teachers–and hoping that I can serve a similar function for the next generation in some small way.

I’m reminded of Mr. Simon’s mantra, “Keep moving, or they’ll bury you”.  Life for me is about movement and growth.  My mentors continue to help show me the way.

Abbey-SimonDaniel EricourtDeborah SobolRoy McAllister at the piano--University of Alabama

Musings of a Transplanted Southerner on a Life in Music–Why Beethoven?

Transcendence.  I’ve known a few special people in my life who have overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles of one sort or another–and have come out the other end wiser and, more often than not, with more compassion toward others.

I’m currently smack dab in the middle of an ongoing project with a number of my friends and colleagues–the exploration and performance of all of Beethoven’s sonatas for violin/piano, cello/piano and his piano trios.  When I first decided to take on this project in 2014, I wasn’t completely sure why I wanted to–only that I felt a deep compulsion to “know” this music.

Now that I and those undertaking this project with me are fully immersed in it, I’m beginning to understand what led me to this music: It’s a part of my own personal process of self-reflection.  By delving into a specific body of music written by someone who sought (and often struggled mightily) to move beyond perceived limitations, I can perhaps gain a better understanding of the universality of this very human desire to move beyond–to grow.

On the surface, I can enjoy what an incredibly clever (and sometimes wildly frustrating) musician Beethoven was–and how beautifully-crafted so much of his music is.  I find myself, however, being drawn more to the musical thought within the notes–and to Beethoven’s obsessive, seemingly never-ending drive to explore an idea fully–to exhaust all possible avenues when dealing with even the smallest motive.  For some reason, I find that process–his process–to be comforting–enlightening–and fully engaging.

When I shared news of this Beethoven project recently with a close friend (a very gifted musician and rather deep thinker himself), he understood immediately.  “We seek understanding of ourselves at various times often with the aid of those who have gone before us.”

I couldn’t agree more.  I’ll have more to say about this project, no doubt, as I continue to explore it.

Musings of a transplanted Southerner on a life in music

I’ve had the great good fortune of spending much of the past fifteen years of my life helping to found and grow a community music school here in my current home of Evanston, IL. The name chosen for our organization was ‘The Musical Offering’. My co-founder (musical dynamo and genuinely beautiful person Kirsten Hedegaard) and I shared a belief in the ability of music to transcend all types of perceived boundaries–cultural, religious, age, what have you. And, for us, the music and person of JS Bach represented this transcendence at its most profound. Bach’s music communicates in a way that gets right to the heart (literally and figuratively) of what it means to be human–challenges and speaks to our intellect and our emotions. He was a master of his craft; a deeply spiritual man with a belief in his own personal mission of magnifying that which is good and beautiful in this world through a musical medium.
His musical world-view helped shape our approach to teaching–fostering a deep love of music combined with rigorous skill-building components. Challenging our students to learn and grow via basic elements of music–solfege and other ear-training, note and rhythmic reading skills, technical development…. In other words, musical literacy.
In future posts, I’ll trumpet the wonderful work of brilliant researchers such as Dr. Nina Kraus at Northwestern University–and those teachers who incorporate this fabulous research into their teaching. We’re growing brains and increasing auditory development, in addition to nurturing artistically-aware and expressive human beings.
During these intervening years, I’ve often been asked about our name. Are we a religious organization? (Depends on your feelings about Bach, I suppose…) Are we a yoga center? (No clue about that one.) Are we a retreat center? (I like to think so, from a musical perspective–folks seem to feel very much at home here–it’s nice.)
No, we’re a community music school in every sense of the word. All ages, all levels of skills–catering to and supporting many types of musical interests. But at the heart of it all is my belief that music study and performance creates a very special type of community–beyond words or the commonplace. Music study allows us to find our perceived limits and, with patience and perseverance, expand beyond them. Music study allows us the opportunity to connect more deeply with our humanity. Music study cannot be rushed or forced–it takes its own sweet time and never ends. Always something new and interesting to explore around every corner.
Just like the music of JS Bach.
Great guy. Highly recommended.