Monday, August 10, 2015

Memorizing the Wallpaper - Piano Interlude

Classical pianist Josef Hofman wrote that when memorizing a piece of music you will, in addition to memorizing the music, memorize the wallpaper in the room and, . .. "the discoloration of the ivory on some key of the piano, the pictures on the walls. . . "   Hofmann goes on to say that if we then stumble through that piece in a performance we're likely to blame our memory.  But, he observes, memory is so exacting and precise that it's actually the "difference from our accustomed surroundings that upsets our too precise memory."   Practice is one thing, but performing, even with a well-memorized and prepared piece, is another.

For the amateur musician like myself, Hoffman's wallpaper became painfully real as I embarked on a personal initiative to improve my performance skills, or, indeed, to develop some. A year or so ago when I sat down at the Model D Steinway in the midst of a very friendly and informal gathering, I was the proverbial deer caught in the headlights.  The glare over my head had to be at least a dozen Kleig lights pointed directly at me.  The audience, similarly performance-inexperienced adult musicians,  had obviously turned into hungry wolves and cackling hyenas. The very keys of the offending instrument came rushing up at me, aggressive and threatening.  I looked down at them utterly intimidated.  I was sure I'd never seen a piano before.

What had happened to my nice little Kawai upright with the green wall behind it and the painting above it? Who had made me do this?  It was a simple Bach fugue which I had to start over at least twice after twice playing some ridiculous jumble of notes that had nothing to do with anything I had ever heard in my life.  My fingers literally fell all over themselves in hysteria.

I got through the piece and everyone clapped, mostly out of grateful joy that my misery was over I'm quite sure. Meanwhile, my rational mind told me that it wasn't necessary to play so badly in front of people when I can actually play quite well albeit in the privacy of my living room.  So began the task of trying to figure out how to make an informal, friendly performance a doable if not even mildly rewarding experience.

I knew there were some gaps in my performance approach, some tendencies that I suspected would get me demerits in the musicianship department.  For example, I usually employed a kind of close-my-eyes-and-cross-my-fingers approach when sitting down to perform.  Then, once I got going, I'd usually be thinking about when I'd make the first mistake, when the next, how and if I would recover, when and where I would have a memory slip and how I'd feel leaving the piano in defeat.  I was vaguely aware that I was skating on the surface with the methods I used for memorization.  And I was keenly aware that I couldn't keep focused on the music.  My concentration was lacking.  After all, I was mostly thinking about mistakes.

But what else was I supposed to think about? What do people, seasoned performers, think about when performing? The music, maybe? But what about the music? How it sounds? The next note? Picture dreamy clouds when playing Debussy and stormy skies when playing Beethoven? Ridiculous. I had heard from my teacher of some quotes by Yo Yo Ma and Claudio Arrau, something to the effect of, actually, not thinking about the music but about conveying the music, orchestrating the performance, being involved with the music yet above or beyond it.

Jonathan Biss, though not writing about performance per se in his Beethoven's Shadow, talks about the "macro- and microcosmic aspects of music" and notes that "one of the great peculiarities of the performing musician's work is that it is simultaneously so spiritual and so mundane. . . ."  I don't fancy myself a Jonathan Biss (or a Schnabel, Fleisher or Serkin, the musicians he's discussing), but these words summed up an apparent contradiction I had noted which circles me back to Hofmann's wallpaper.  Performing is not practice nor is it sitting down to play in the privacy of one's living room nor is it sitting down to play by oneself just for the enjoyment and love of the music. Yet a performance relies on all these--a studied preparation and knowledge of the music, a desire to communicate the music to others and, perhaps above all, a love of the music.  All told, a peculiarity for sure.

Based on little more than an inchoate research methodology and a smattering of intuition thrown in for good measure, I began by reducing a performance to 1) some physical properties of the performance space and 2) the first few notes of the piece. Thus, if time and place permit, I now study the performance space, sit down at the piano and take note of the lighting, the piano bench, the pedals and anything else that's around the piano.  (In one space there was a humidifier that provided a faint backdrop of sound which would have probably driven me to distraction had I not identified it beforehand.)  If the audience is there I size them up as well, mostly wondering, of course, why they haven't all stayed home.

When the person before me in the program takes their bow, it's true that I'm still momentarily annoyed at them for finishing before I'm ready to play (whereas when they sat down to perform I was momentarily annoyed at them for being ahead of me thereby prolonging my misery), but I move toward the piano. Once seated, there's no choice but to do something.  First on my list, I look at the foreign keyboard and address it bass to treble aiming to make its very keys my friends.  I tell myelf they will like me.

I  take what seems an eternity to find the place on the keyboard corresponding to where my piece of music will begin and find that's a good time to picture the first notes of the piece and think about how they're going to sound once I get my hands to the keys. If I'm playing an opening chord, I say it silently by name.  I think about exactly how I should sit on the keys to get the sound that I've practiced. I try to remember that, having arms, I must use them, but that, having shoulders, they must not be up, that sound is produced by a downward motion on the keys not by cruising tentatively on top of them.  It does help to breathe now and again. I begin.

Have I seen an improvement?  Yes I have.  If nothing else, I have something to think about now besides nerves and the audience and mistakes.  I've contrived a humble beginning to establishing a foundation that consists of something other than doubt and anxiety.  I have a positive opening ritual to pre-empt the negative one. It's my version of the micro level of  playing (apologies to Rudolf Serkin and Jonathan Biss) and it will hopefully get me to the macro. The idea of a performance still looms but now seems doable.The lights aren't Kleigs, the piano isn't an attack dog, the audience is, if not friendly, at least remote, almost out of mind as I go down my checklist.   The wallpaper phenomenon is far less and the amateur performer soldiers on.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

First Thing: Is Maureen Full of Mullarkey?

Still on the tail of the dust-up over the New York Archdiocese's  Making All Things New campaign, we have First Things and National Review persisting with articles about good, bad and ugly parishes in New York City.  I hesitate even to cite the articles but, here, here and here, it's only fair that one reads and decides for oneself.

In these articles, everything from clashing ideologies to art history to bureaucratic politics is invoked to report on what reads like ad hominem attacks on Our Saviour's newest pastor and his very bad horrible decision to remove artist Ken Woo's icons from the Church of Our Saviour.  As a former parishioner at Our Saviour, I too signed the petition to save the icons and I too lamented the loss of Fr. Rutler as pastor.   I also lamented the loss of the religious education program.  (Oh, you didn't know about that?  Funny that neither First Things or National Review has picked up on the termination of the program--eighty kids, numerous loyal families and some 20 volunteer catechists and volunteer director summarily told by the new pastor, Good-bye!)

Fr. Robbins, or the mere idea of him, has managed to get the very blood of some so-called traditionalist New York Catholics boiling.  It's true that at Our Saviour, the air has changed, but Fr. Robbins hasn't yet replaced the wafer with Wonder Bread nor has he brought in liturgical dancers or a rock band. The Mass continues to be a rather reverential one.

What comes through in these articles is an ideologue's vitriolic disdain for that which challenges his ideology.  In this case, the target is the likes of a Fr. Robbins who, with his co-conspirator Cardinal Dolan, himself by now a satyr with tail and horns, dares to oppose a Fr. Rutler, definitely a heavenly cherub who can, by the way,  more than adequately defend himself if need be. It's predictable now if not comical to hear how suspect and disagreeable are all those who do not present as sufficiently traditionalist and orthodox to the traditionalist Catholic New Yorker who requires that others of us pass muster, we lesser ones being those who surely collude and conspire to deprive traditionalists of their priests, their parishes, their masses.

Where's the Catholic joy?  Who would want to be a part of this orthodox crowd when they whine and stamp their feet so miserably because their sensitivities are upset. 

Saturday, July 18, 2015

A Week of Saints

St. Kateri Tekakwitha, St. Bonaventure, St. Camillus de Lellis but we began the week with the Bavarian Holy Roman Emperor St. Henry II of Bamberg whose saintly wife Cunegunde is buried with him in the Dom in Bamberg, Germany.  I decline to post my plain photos of Bamberg except for the one below. Besides Henry and Cunegunde's Riemenschneider sarcophagus in the Dom and all the other sights of this Bavarian city, the Age of Faith lingers in modern-day Bamberg if you walk around a bit.
A crucifix at the end of a quiet street leading back to the Bahnhof in Bamberg

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Dr. Nucatola

Is Dr. Nucatola a good doctor?  She looks presentable, very normal actually, and she speaks well, self-assured and articulate.  She must be fairly well trained in her field.

She's talking about salvaging and selling the livers, lungs and hearts of aborted babies as she chats glibly in a restaurant over a glass of wine and some salad.  She's a professional, looks to be a young woman.  What is the culture that raised up a Deborah Nucatola we might ask.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Pillar To Post On Transgenderism

If you read Paul McHugh here and Fr. Robert Barron here ,you go from a medical to a theological perspective on the subject of transgenderism, and there's not much ground left on which to build any kind of rationale for what the Bruce Jenners of the world have done to themselves. Unless, of course, one persists with the kind of thinking described in this article.  Finally, enter a philosopher, here, to discuss gender identity.

McHugh, a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins University which led the way in sex change operations, lays it out pretty clearly.  Sex change operations haven't been performed at Johns Hopkins since the 70s; no benefits have been shown and in fact the suicide rate and psychological problems increased among those who had undergone the operation.  Gender dysphoria, explains Dr. McHugh, is a psychological problem akin to anorexia nervosa   Using the Emperor-Has-No-Clothes approach, McHugh deftly explains the dishonesty and deception that leads anyone in our society (but most tragically young people who become persuaded to undergo transgender "treatments") to believe that changing their body will cure their dysphoria.  Dr. McHugh writes:  "Transgendered men do not become women, nor do transgendered women become men. All (including Bruce Jenner) become feminized men or masculinized women, counterfeits or impersonators of the sex with which they “identify.” In that lies their problematic future."

Enter Fr. Barron who refers us to Gnosticism, that heresy which says that matter is evil, that our physical bodies are an encumbrance, that a secret knowledge, gnosis, will set our souls free from the material world which imprisons us.  Fr. Barron points out the similarities to the transgender cry--I'm really a man (or woman) "trapped" inside a physical body which, if I change it, will set the man (or woman) inside me free.  Fr. Barron writes, .". . . the gnostic heresy has proven remarkably durable, reasserting itself across the centuries. Its most distinctive mark is precisely the denigration of matter and the tendency to set the spirit and the body in an antagonistic relationship. This is why many thinkers have identified the anthropology of RenĂ© Descartes, which has radically influenced modern and contemporary attitudes, as neo-gnostic. Descartes famously drove a wedge between spirit and matter, or in his language, between the res cogitans (thinking thing) and the res extensa (thing extended in space)."

He concludes, "Until we realize that the lionization of Caitlyn Jenner amounts to an embracing of Gnosticism, we haven’t grasped the nettle of the issue."

As for what the Church teaches, we are to believe in neither Cartesian dualism nor Gnostic heresies but in the body and soul as inseparable parts of our humanity.  Extrapolating from what Dr. McHugh says, science, that is, the natural world, and the Church bring us to the same spot.  We are created male and female and any unrest some individual may feel with his or her physical body doesn't mean that God made a mistake.  It means that individual needs some help.

It seemed to me this quartet of articles on gender and sexuality complemented one another and enlightened in a helpful way.  These thoughts are a mere skating on the surface of the topic.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Forgiveness in South Carolina

The example of the good people of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina does make an impression. Their act of forgiveness is being hailed as a demonstration of  Christian virtue, a living out of their faith.  But glib praise for their actions is just talk if there's no understanding of the nature of forgiveness.  It's as easy to say I'm sorry and not mean it as it is to say I forgive you and not mean it.

Fr. Koterski, Jesuit priest and professor at Fordham University extemporized on the subject of forgiveness one evening several years ago at a lecture he was giving on another topic.  Fr. Koterski cautioned first off about forgiveness being offered prematurely.

Forgiveness is not a matter of excusing or dismissing a wrong and one shouldn't feel an obligation to forgive if there's no forgiveness in one's heart. Forgiveness comes from assessing and working through the wrong that was suffered, resulting finally in an interior transformation in the heart of the wronged party. There is relationship to Fr. Koterski's explanation of forgiveness. The wronged party needs to make a good faith attempt to repair the damage that was done even if it was the fault of the other party. The wronged party will seek to elicit 'something better' from the offender, appeal to the good in his soul.   The offender, too, should show a willingness to repair the relationship lest the wronged party simply be manipulated by an empty apology.

To date, Dylan Roof has shown no remorse.  While the victims' relatives may be fulfilling their half of the forgiveness relationship, without the murderer's contrition,  their forgiveness may be incomplete if not simply, well, not forgiveness.

Another caution in the Church's teaching of forgiveness, explained  here,  is not to confuse forgiveness with loving one's enemy.  The former relies on relationship.  The latter relies on our individual ability to see the face of Christ in those who harm us.

St. Maria Goretti, the 12 year old girl who was repeatedly stabbed by her attacker, Alessandro Serenelli, with whom she did have a relationship, uttered her forgiveness before her death saying, "Through love of Jesus, I forgive him with all my heart."   Alessandro is said to have replied that that was impossible.  Some six years into his prison sentence, however, Alessandro came up with his half of the bargain. He repented, asked forgiveness of Maria's mother and spent the rest of his life in a Capuchin monastery. He also testified at the beatification hearings for Maria's cause for sainthood.

Those relatives of the victims in South Carolina may well be saints or saints in the making.  St. Maria Goretti aside, however, their expressions of forgiveness less than a week after the murders seem premature.  Rather, I think what they're giving voice to is their Christian duty to love their enemy, to turn the other cheek. Maybe that's the first step in forgiveness.  Their message to the murderer is admirable and is certainly a worthy public expression of their private faith.  Perhaps Dylan Roof, like Alessandro Serenelli, will one day say I'm sorry and mean it making forgiveness in this callous crime complete.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A Tango Interlude

Sitting under the clock (or that black plaque on the wall)  is your writer who had earlier played two tangos on the piano in the corner while her tango friends danced beautifully.  Two professionals performed a bit later in the evening and here they are.

We also saw a tango milonga performed last night by a male/female couple though I don't see the video up yet.  Read about the tradition of men dancing with men in tango here or here.  Be sure to watch the video of the De Fazio brothers dancing a tango milonga.  I've copied it for you below.