Thursday, March 25, 2010

Sam Skis

Last month, Sam and I watched a lot of the Winter Olympics. I wasn't sure what Sam would be interested in as we began the two week event, but he quickly gravitated to two events: the biathlon and the slalom (though ski jumping was a close third). For the biathlon, we had long discussions on what you use a gun for, how you use it, and why in the world you might want to ski and shoot at the same time. For the slalom, he just decided to set up his own course and shoot off down the hill on his "skis."

I figured this was a better way for him to experience the Olympics at home than shooting at us and Noah all day.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Virtual Choirs

Last year, I wrote about the YouTube symphony, and the delicate balance such an undertaking seemed to create between democratization of music and a devaluing of what music schools stand for. At the same time, however, I realized that tapping into YouTube's potential for world-wide music making was a new frontier and it was only a matter of time before a composer latched onto it in order to promote his own works.

In that vein, I give you Eric Whitacre's Virtual Choir:

Whitacre is a savvy composer when it comes to marketing himself to his fans. He started this project last summer on his blog when he put up a track on YouTube of himself conducting his piece Lux Aurumque to a piano accompaniment and provided musical instructions as to style, dynamics, pronunciation, and interpretation, much as you would preface a new work to a choir. Singers were then instructed to download the sheet music from his website, record themselves singing to this track, post the results on YouTube, and wait to see how he sculpted all the tracks together to form a virtual choir. Just think about the network he's creating for his pieces, the groundswell of support from teenagers in choir who ultimately grow up to lead school choirs of their own. No matter what you think of the musical results, the idea is really stunning.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Listening, Not Talking

This afternoon, I had the opportunity to go on a soundwalk with Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer. Schafer is a fascinating composer, perhaps best known for coining the term "soundscape" and drawing attention to the way the world around us sounds. He began putting together a World Soundscape Project in the late 1960s that made attempts to record the soundscapes of various cities and regions and then began asking questions about how rapid industrialization was impacting what we hear and therefore how we live. He went so far in his 1977 book Tuning the World to propose that we always ask what impact new sounds would have on the soundscape before releasing them into the world.

For the soundwalk, Schafer seemed to have two goals: 1. make us begin using our ears, and 2. to tune us in to Ottawa's soundscape. We started the walk with a few ear cleaning exercises: we closed our eyes and he and an assistant walked around the room constantly talking and we had to follow them with our hands; he passed around a sheet of newspaper and we each had to make a new sound with it; we had to fill in the blank as to what sound an object would make before we heard it. Then, we stepped out into the busy Ottawa downtown.

I wasn't sure what to expect, but focusing on the sounds around me rather than the running dialogue constantly in my head was an amazing experience. Schafer stopped us every once and a while and asked pointed questions about what we were hearing - the sound furthest from us, the lowest sound we heard, what definite pitches we discovered. Then, when we arrived in a large park, half of us were blindfolded and led to a space we had never been. He ran around making sounds (shouting, crinkling, banging, scuffling) and then asked us to describe where we were. I was fortunate enough to be one of the blindfolded participants, and I can't remember when I've ever used by senses as deeply. There were certainly aspects I missed, but the simple act of listening opened up new worlds.

I'm now extremely curious to listen on the soundscape of my every day life. Schafer is right that just as we destroy old buildings without a thought, we destroy sounds than can never be recaptured. He's proposing something of an eco-music where we actively work to conserve sounds before they disappear, but its a hard sell in a world where even musicians like myself rarely truely listen.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Growing Up

Last Friday, I dropped Sam off at his school as usual and in doing so, I got a peek into his future. He ran into the building, his usual exuberant self, stopped next to a girl in his class and said "Hi!" with a big grin. She looked at him, turned on her heel, and grabbed her friend to run down to the classroom. She didn't respond to Sam, but her body language clearly said, "Why are you talking to me?" Sam, unfazed, was off to drop off his bag and ride the tractors with his friends, but I stood there, holding Noah, and fighting off the urge to ask the 4-year-old where she got off ignoring my son.

This insignificant exchange was a lightbulb moment for me. Sam and Noah go to school every week, but for the most part their interactions with other children have been through us and through church - they primarily play with the children of our friends and acquaintances. We have a lot of control over the people with whom they associate and the worldviews that shape them. But in that moment, I saw that my children will grow up and leave my protective grasp, venturing out into a world of people who will not like them and will act toward them in ways fundamentally opposed to the way we treat them. Deep down I know that it is healthy and normal and desirable for them to find their own way and forge their own path, but I can't help but want to hold them tighter to me for the fading years in which I can.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Speaking too Fast

I suppose I spoke too fast yesterday in announcing that Noah now knows himself. Asked this morning who he was, he responded: "Elmo!" This made Sam laugh, so Noah kept repeating that he was Elmo over and over. Who knows how long this identity crisis will last. Oh well, at least he was wearing red pajamas.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Noah Discovers Himself

After Noah's word explosion of a month ago, he's quietly cooled his language acquisition. He still picks up words every one and then, but more often than not he just repeats what people say to him that he finds funny.

In terms of names, he firmly has Joy and I down as Mama and Dada, and he calls Nana and Pop by name, but his favorite person in the world (Sam) he stills calls by sign language. Eventually he'll say "Sam," but right now he just likes to sign "eat" "Sam" when Sam's having a snack or "bath" "Sam" right before bedtime.

But finally, Noah seems to have learned his own name. Sure, he's been responding to it for a long time, but whenever you would ask him his name, he'd look at you quizically and say "Ja," which is his baby-German way of saying "yes." But today in Kindermusik, we were playing with mirrors and he was pointing to me in the mirror and saying "Dada" and when he suddenly pointed to himself and said "Nohna." Sure that double vowel is a bit tricky, but it's fun to see that he finally has a sense of self enough to use his own name for his own reflection.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

More Reasons Why I Teach

I just gave a big music history test yesterday to my undergraduate students and endured the typical grousing about how the subject doesn't relate to what they do and they get tired of memorizing facts.

No matter how many times I tell students the ways in which music history can enrich their musical vocabulary and make them better performers, many refuse to see. That's why I was encouraged by the article "In Search of Lost Sounds: Why you've never really heard the "Moonlight" Sonata" that appeared on yesterday. In it, Jan Swafford gives wonderful audio examples of the differences between the pianos Beethoven wrote for and our modern, equally-tempered and equally-voiced Steinways. The article is an ear-opening read, and I encourage you to jump over to Slate and listen. For me, it was encouragement that music history is important. As a pianist, hearing those recordings opened up new interpretive strategies in my mind and made me hear the music afresh, a goal of all performers of others' music. It is a concrete example of why music history is important. Do you have to play differently because Beethoven wrote for a different piano? No. Do we always have to try to replicate the exact circumstances and choices of pianists in Beethoven's day? No. But I would argue that our music takes on deeper resonance when we understand the choices we are making and the options open to us as musicians rather than blindly playing whatever is before us on the stand. The musicians in any realm or genre that last, that continue to impact us 10, 20, 100 years after their life and work are the ones who understand this simple rubric. History, style, ideas, do matter and matter deeply.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Questionable Musical Choices

Every other Tuesday night we go to a friend's house for fellowship and bible study with a group from our church. Since we start around 7:00, and our children's bedtime is 8:00, twice a month they get to stay up a little late. Often both Sam and Noah are so exhausted that they fall asleep on the way home, and we usually dress Noah in his pajamas before we leave for that eventuality. But sometimes they are too wound up to sleep.

Tonight was one of those nights. We loaded in the car and immediately Sam started scat singing to make Noah laugh. Hearing Noah laugh just made Sam laugh harder and scat louder, so I decided to short circuit the cycle by turning on a little music. I picked a beautiful, slow work by Lou Harrison that is meditative and calming off the iPod and turned on the stereo.

The music didn't phase Sam and Noah.

I sighed, resigned myself to staying up late with both boys coaxing them to sleep when we got home, and turned my attention to Joy. We talked about our day and I mentioned that I was teaching Post-Romanticism and had gotten my students' attention with a disco/funk recording of Also Sprach Zarathustra by Eumir Deodato. I flipped over to the recording on the iPod so Joy could hear it and immediately the back seat went dead quiet.

This immediate, strong reaction to disco can only mean one thing - Abba is not far in our future.