Musical Lineage

As readers of this blog will be aware, my music tastes have been altered slightly in the last 6 months, what with my rediscovery of how much I enjoyed classical music. Yesterday, while spending time on the internet, I discovered this fascinating piano teacher family tree. You can take a look here to contextualize this post.

I’m enjoying this classical music wave so much that I genuinely hope that the love affair I have going on continues for a long while. However, in the fear that perhaps it won’t, I’m consuming a fair amount of it while I definitively know that I enjoy it. Seeing this piano teacher family tree type diagram was quite astonishing.

When I started going for lessons again, in January, I learned about Hanon and Czerny. I’m yet to procure my copy of their exercises, but my teacher told me about their prominence, and how much their exercises help develop finger independence and strength, and how long they’ve been in use for. It surprised me that I had not learned about them earlier, given how many piano lessons I had gone to. I spent a large amount of time reading about these composers and their techniques, and I was floored by how they conceptualized all of these drills. It’s pretty easy to think about, but to sit and notate, and see demonstrable results – and start a school of thought based on pure technique is quite something, and a feat I found worthy of admiration.

This graphic sort of put their influence into perspective. Particularly Czerny. There are so many influential, incredible concert pianists and composers who have been taught by him or by his pupils – and in the same school of thought, no doubt. I sat on my piano in the evening after that, and at the moment, I’m learning Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata again, and it blew my mind that Beethoven taught Czerny who then taught so many people.

It shows you the whole “six degrees of separation” theory in action. There is a minute possibility that my own entry into the world of the instrument is perhaps 14 or 15 degrees down from Czerny, given his influence. If that is so, no matter where the influence comes from, perhaps I can channel that spirit into me the next time I have music flowing through my fingers.

Classical Music, Declassified | Language of the Spirit: An Introduction to Classical Music by Jan Swafford

Language of the Spirit: An Introduction to Classical Music,
by Jan Swafford
Published by Basic Books (2017)
Rating: **** 

Introduction

By December, 2019, I had decided that one of the things I wanted to do in 2020 was to get back to classical music more seriously. For several years, between Grade 6 and Grade 10, classical music had consumed large chunks of my time: amidst theory lessons and piano lessons, all I was learning was classical pieces for examinations, or music in method books, all composed by famous composers. It was only in one of my later theory lessons that my music teacher at the time introduced me to the different periods of music composition. That revelation coincided with the time I was learning about literary periods, and the overlap was quite a phenomenon for my young mind.

Of course as time passed, my interest weaned off, and I stopped my piano lessons and everything that went along with it. For a while, therefore, I played the same 3 pieces I learned for exams in 2011 every time someone asked me to perform. Anyway, long story short, I figured that if I was going to get back to classical music, I ought to educate myself about it’s history and relevance, to some degree. Enter Jan Swafford.

Short Chapters 

One of the classiest things to do. With non-fiction books that present brief histories of, or introductions to individual subjects or niche areas, there’s often this desire to cover everything in the field, which stems out of the author’s own passion for the subject. I know that if I wrote a non-fiction book, for example, I’d want to cover everything imaginable about the subject. However, very often, that slips into making the book inaccessible to the general public – an outcome that isn’t the most desirable when you are trying to influence or improve general visibility for a craft.

Swafford keeps his chapters short and crisp, with a lucid writing style and dry wit that sparks off the page and keeps the pages turning. One of the more helpful things is the fact that he doesn’t seek to delve into a historical overview of every significant piece in an era or by a particular composer. He writes about the pieces that appeal to him – displaying a bias toward choral pieces, but that nevertheless allows him to explain the characteristic features of the piece by the composer.

Additionally, along with short chapters, the thing I admired was the selection of recommended pieces neatly highlighted in Bold, allowing for optional (yet highly recommended) listening alongside the reading. This book consumed me. Quite honestly, it left me wondering why books didn’t come with recommended soundtracks or playlists, and whether I could embark on another quest: to create playlists for the books I read – to capture the mood and emotion of the book most appropriately. That is, however, for another day.

Simplicity

Swafford is a composer himself. Another peril of having an expert write a book meant for beginners is the prospect of highly technical language. I’m not a complete beginner to music theory, however, there is jargon that is consistently beyond me. I am not an expert, and would not have liked for this book to have assumed any knowledge. To my surprise, the book assumed nothing. From start to finish, it felt as though someone had clasped my hand and walked me across all the 88-keys of a piano, teaching me what each sounded like and meant, but also helping me build the vocabulary into my own lexicon.

Swafford does a magnificent job structurally, building through and weaving more famous composers with less publicly known faces, allowing you to appreciate the breadth and depth of technique employed by these composers.

What I wish the book contained though was a little more contextual information at the beginning of each ‘era’ so to speak – to place and locate it precisely in history. The issue with exploring composers is that at times (quite often), their histories overlap, leading to repetition. This is not a fatal flaw, nonetheless, I did feel that it compromised my own reading of the subject.

Conclusion

I’m looking forward to reading his more “heavy” work, The Vintage Guide to Classical Music, very soon. This is definitely a good starting point for anybody interested in understanding classical music better, or for anybody seeking some good classical music recommendations.

The Theory of Music: A Personal Arc

When things go south, I find solace in work. I do always think about things – I think long and hard, and I think things through. I’m a compulsive overthinker. It is my hamartia, I’m aware of that. Work consoles me. It gives me the opportunity to shut my brain away from the thinking when it’s counterproductive. It allows me to shut out the outside world and concentrate wholly on efforts that are entirely within my sphere of control to try to achieve ends I’m searching for. It gives me space to think about other things for some time before I go back to thinking about everything else. When things weren’t going well for me because of my actions at the end of 2019, I went home and after some time, decided to try to find things to put my mind to.

My history with music is documented too much on this blog. Quick recap: went to lessons, dropped out of lessons, posted stuff on Soundcloud, stopped playing for a while, resumed lessons now.

When I started studying music, my teacher made me study music theory – to prepare me for exams from the board that I was learning from at the time. I didn’t enjoy it. Especially Grade 1. I sort of knew most of it, so it never felt like I was learning anything new at all. At that age, I struggled to see how the knowledge contributed to my ability to understand music or my playing in any manner. There was also a large amount of homework to do each week, which didn’t materially help my levels of satisfaction. Grade 2 was a little better but we stopped midway through because my practical examinations needed a lot more in terms of my time and attention given that I was skipping Grades. Getting older has given me some maturity in terms of appreciating holistic knowledge. I enjoy knowing things to the most complete point I am capable of, and searching for gaps in my knowledge to plug them in with information. It feels like continuous improvement that I can materially see, and it gives me an enormous amount of satisfaction.

So when, in winter, I resolved to relearn my piano playing, I decided not to half-ass it this time. I committed to going to lessons properly. I wanted to learn how to read music again, because it’s a skill that’s equally as fascinating as being able to understand how to play music by ear. I also have come to realize that music, and most pieces of education aren’t things you can separate from each other. As you study portions of things, you sort of build overlapping competencies that help you along the way. I’ll explain and illustrate with two examples.

  1. The Musical Example: Learning scales and playing scales repeatedly. While useful in their own right, and a component of most examinations, playing scales repeatedly and perfecting them can get boring. Then you leave lessons and you’re trying to figure out pieces by ear – as you hear them. It’s easier to identify your keys and the key the song is in because you know what the scales sound like, note to note, and what notes are in the scale and out of the scale. It’s easier to identify progressions because you understand the tone and pitch any given key produces. If you didn’t play scales, I doubt you’d figure that out as easily.
  2. The Non-Musical Example: Studying the multiplication of fractions is extremely frustrating because it is difficult to see any practical use to when you will have to multiply fractions in your life. It is reasonable that you will come across some circumstance where you multiply fractions with whole numbers (here are three halves of a cake, how many whole cakes can we make?, for example), but fractions being multiplied against each other seems slightly less realistic. It’s, however, close to impossible to engage with calculus without being good with this skill. I learned this the hard way in Grade 11 and was reminded of one very bad evening in Grade 7 where my father and mother berated me for not knowing how to multiply fractions the day before my Math exam (after studying it for the whole year), and then taught the skill to me painfully well.

There are several other examples which prove this. For me, given the purpose with which I was starting (restarting) the piano studies, it felt difficult to ignore the theory aspects. I couldn’t put myself through lessons and I really wanted a challenge, so in December, I decided to self-study for the Music Theory Grade 5 examination. This was quite a stretch, given that I had only ever looked at the material for Grade 1 and 2 before. However, given that I was older, and that I had the time, and the fact that Grade 5, at least with the ABRSM is a precondition to attempting the higher Grades of any practical examinations, I was really motivated to give this a good shot.

If anyone’s attempting this, please visit this reddit link which is a question I asked about self-studying through to Grade 5 and some community answers which helped me prioritize my studying. Here’s the reddit link.

Over the past 2 months, I’ve been studying for a solid two hours each day, apart from lean patches and weekends I’ve taken off, and it’s been the most fulfilling journey imaginable. Last evening though, I got really scared. The exam was this morning and my usual fear of failing an examination came through in all its force. Of course, I turned to my dad. My dad reminded me I had done all of this for hobby purposes. He also wisely informed me there was no consequence to failing this exam. Truly, nothing. The exam and achieving the Grade would be a great affirmation of the studying I had done, but nothing prohibited a retake, and nothing took away from the kind of knowledge I gained – which was why I started this entire journey in the first place. I wanted to understand my classical music better, I wanted to know what went behind what composers think through and why some things sound better than others. That took the load off.

This morning, I basically told myself I just wanted to enjoy the exam. I walked out two hours later having had the happiest two hours I’ve had in a while, because I could figure out the questions. I understood the language they were written in, and the phrases they used – which meant that my studying had served its purpose. I read through some music and read through some more and imagined what it sounded like, which checked another box in my head. Of course, I answered 7 music theory questions, which was incredibly satisfying and fulfilling in its own right.

I don’t know if I’ll pass or not. I haven’t thought about it. There is a chance I will fail. I’m not worried. For the first time in my life, I’m actually not mortified at the thought of failing this exam. I’ll be disappointed if I fail, yes, but I’m not looking at this in terms of life and death, which is often how I’ve viewed exams.

This evening, after finishing up my work for the day, I started figuring out how to study for Grade 6, Grade 7 and Grade 8. I’ll work my way up through the material, and one day, give that Grade 8 exam. I’m looking forward to learning new things in music theory that felt intuitive but I couldn’t place my finger on (apparently that’s what the higher Grades are like).

I’m also considering working through the material from other boards – just to get a better-rounded view of this music theory business. It excites me. I’m very pleased that I took the decision to study all of this in December. It’s brought me closer to an art I knew I lost when I stopped my lessons – and it’s made me feel an incredible sense of attachment to a subject I felt (and feel) a large sense of imposter syndrome about.

Someone I knew once told me I was a passionfruit because I got incredibly passionate about the projects I took up. This feels like an adequate representation of that.

Old Dog, New Tricks | Play It Again, by Alan Rusbridger

Introduction

First off, I must apologize for the title. I tried long and hard to find something more suitable, but nothing felt quite as right as this did. Apologies, Mr. Rusbridger, if you do read this.

Secondly, some context. This marvelous book was recommended to me by the genie that is Goodreads, thanks not in small part to my recent completion of another book on classical music (which I should hopefully review shortly), and the fact that Year of Wonder is now a book I am currently reading. My own history with classical music is long and storied. It forms a part of a poem, and a blogpost from early 2016. At present, I am falling in love with it all over again. I’ve begun piano classes, I listen to more classical pieces, I’m engaging with my own study of music theory – and I’m enjoying every bit of it. However, it has been 6 years since I properly attended lessons and focused on technique instead of playing things by the ear. As a consequence, my dexterity is something I am relearning. In that sense, finding this book felt like more than a coincidence. My review might therefore be coloured by this experience.

Plot Summary 

Pretty straightforward really. Rusbridger explains it in a video he recorded, which you can see here. In a series of diary-style entries, Rusbridger recounts taking up the challenge to learn and play Chopin’s Ballade No.1 in G minor Op. 23, which is one of the most daunting pieces of music ever written. There are added layers to the challenge, though. First, he gave up the piano when he was 16, and took it up as a serious hobby only past the age of 40. Second, he’s got a day-job (and not any day-job. At the time, he was Editor-in-Chief of The Guardian). Third, he wants to learn it in a year – committing to do so by giving himself 20 minutes a day of dedicated practice. To anybody, developing a habit over the course of a year by attempting it for just 20 minutes of a day sounds ludicrous enough. To commit to learning a fresh piece of music – and something that lasts 10 whole minutes isn’t just committing to a habit – it’s committing to teaching yourself something new that develops on past knowledge, which is incredible.

To give you a spoiler alert: yes, he manages to play it, and rather successfully, I might add. There are snippets of his playing in the video I’ve linked above.

The Writing 

I’ve often found that diary-style entries face the arduous challenge of establishing context in as few words as possible before developing plot, or rather, furthering plot in a manner that is engaging, yet succinct. Some preliminary comments on length and style before analyzing the writing itself.

Some books written as journal or diary entries end up writing these extracts at length. They feel well-edited, meticulously-crafted – that the thoughts come in a structured manner, or a structured flow at all points of time. While it is arguable that journal/diary writers do spend time thinking about what they wish to write about, I often feel that there is an erosion of the unfiltered thought that takes place when they are crafted to be literary. There’s a beauty to the natural flow of thought when somebody sits down with a pen and paper to write – the brain hops, skips, and jumps, and you can see that with the writing. It feels organic, and natural, with stops that are as abrupt as these thoughts themselves. There is no doubt to Rusbridger’s talent in the English language (he studied at Cambridge and was a journalist, for goodness sakes’), but what I loved here is that the diary entries never felt too long. While we do not know whether these were extracts culled out of longer pieces of writing from each day, there’s a flow to the book that feels like I could’ve sat and written it at home.

This does two things for me: one, it makes it incredibly easy to read, even when it’s discussing something like the art of choosing which piano to buy – something that is incredibly boring if you cannot hear the tone of the pianos being compared and the subtle differences in tone. Two, it makes the amateur portion of his piano playing feel more genuine. You can see that this is something he is incredibly passionate about – (at least this one project), but having the writing laid out in a very amateur-like way makes it feel more relatable.

Interweaving Subplots and Interviews 

The book would have been incredibly boring to the general public if it was exclusively about him learning new sections of the piece each day, with stylistic changes being described as if you understand everything about how the piano is to be played. It would make for excellent technical reading, and I wouldn’t mind reading that too, but that’s for another day. There’s a lot going on in Rusbridger’s life, as I pointed out. There is success not only in the fact that he does play the piece at the end of the book, but that he doggedly and determinedly ensures he gets in as much practice as possible whenever he finds the time.

It’s evident that he needs to make the time for this hobby. He explains, at different junctures, the WikiLeaks stories, the phone hacking scandals, and other stories – including the rescue of a Guardian reporter from Libya (where he conceives the title of the book). All of this means that pages turn not exclusively because you’re interested in finding out more about his journey with the piece, but also because you’re trying to figure out whether or not he’s succeeding in the other things that are the top of the priority list for the paper and for him.

While that is admirable, what I enjoyed even more was the fact that he presented the art of learning this piece in a very holistic manner. It isn’t him self-learning, or self-teaching the piece. In technicality, once you learn how to read music, you can pretty much learn how to play anything – for playing sakes’. It’s clear that he doesn’t want this. He enrols in regular lessons, which you can see changes his perspective on the piece by giving him an observer to play to every time he visits. There are nuggets of information from professional pianists whom he has the opportunity to spend time with (as a result of his day-job), and all their interpretations offers him with the chance to look at the music through his own eyes – and reflect in the music a story that he connects with, which I think is beautiful. He also speaks to neuroscientists to understand the art of memory and learning an instrument better in an attempt to figure out what the easiest way to commit the piece to his brain would be.

All of this portrays Western classical music and its performance as being so much more than the random notes and squiggles on a staff. Indeed, in various moments, Rusbridger taps into his historical knowledge to offer different views on the context and meaning of Chopin, which I absolutely adored.

The Personality 

This would’ve also been a little less interesting if the writing didn’t allow the personal side of the story to shine through. I’ve stated above how personal the challenge itself becomes, but Rusbridger takes that one step forward, involving the reader in several aspects and decisions he’s taking on the fly. This includes the fact that he ends up building a music room in his house, he buys a piano, and he attends a couple of amateur piano conferences. There is humour interspersed in his own reflections of the kind of mountain he’s trying to climb – all of which really allows you to see who Rusbridge is beyond this singular focus he has for a year.

Conclusion

Listen to a performance of Chopin’s Ballade. Then read the book. It’s a wonderful exposition of how immersive classical music, or any hobby can be really. For me, it’s deepened my own resolve to learn the piano to enjoy it as much as I possibly can, given the history I’ve got with the instrument. It’s also convinced me that I can learn new things at any age, and I’m never going to be dissuaded by my age as an excuse to learn a skill I’m interested in. Without much doubt, this book earns ***** (5 stars).