Thursday, June 28, 2007

Barnhill and Gurga, each improvising in concerts

Two wonderful young classical pianists whom I am privileged to know gave performances yesterday combining improvisation and classical music, perhaps simultaneously.

Eric Barnhill
participated in a recital at the International Dalcroze Institute in Boston. From an email he sent to friends and colleagues:
I'm here at the Dalcroze Summer Institute in Boston and the institute put on a public performance tonight. I decided, especially since it would be a friendly audience, to do my first public improvisation in concert. I was listed on the program as "Three Chopin Etudes With Improvised Preluding" and I asked three different people in the audience to pick their favorite etude from the op. 10 set (a gambit that wouldn't work on a more general audience obviously) and improvised preludes into and between the three etudes. I also talked a bit about what I was doing and why.

Naturally, as with anything that would be tremendously important to me to record, I had major audio problems. Anything above mezzo-forte blew the levels on the condenser mic I put out in the crowd. What is this, 1975? The etudes being loud and fast, some parts are mostly distortion - but you'll be able to hear the improvs and figure out what I did.
Eric is passionate about the widespread nineteenth-century practice of playing improvised preludes before composed pieces. Carl Czerny, pupil of Beethoven and teacher of Liszt, wrote a whole book about it. Eric's working on reviving the art. Listen to his first public go at this.

Meanwhile . . . .

At 7:30 PM here in Greencastle, perhaps around the same time as Eric's performance, the wonderful young pianist Stephanie Gurga played a recital which began with an extended free improvisation, and ended with an encore that began and ended with the Chopin "Minue Waltz" and also had "Someday My Prince Will Come" mixed in. Stephanie called the recital "Songs I learned while my mom was cookin' dinner," and in it she combined reminiscences about growing up, practicing as her mother cooked, with performances of pieces which had special meaning for her.

Stephanie, a DePauw grad who has been doing our publicity and marketing this year, has much technique, and an incredible ear, a brilliant mind, and an expansive imagination. She has embraced improvisation and what, for lack of a better term, I'll call the responsibility to be creative when she makes music. This recital was her "farewell to Greencastle" piano performance. She moves to Germany soon to continue her performing career and do further study.

I'll post audio clips soon, if she'll let me. The concert, both informal and intense, was remarkable. She played with an engaging freedom that might drive some work-concept addicts nuts, but captured the audience. Christopher Small, the author of Musicking and other books, says (I'm paraphrasing) that performances don't exist to present works, but works exist to give performers something to perform. And that the right question isn't "what is the meaning of this work?" but "what is the meaning of this performance in this place and at this time?"

As I experienced Stephanie's concert, it was so clear to me that this was music-making and communication that had a very specific meaning in this place, at this time, and for these people. A particularly enjoyable concert for some. A bittersweet final mutual embrace for others.

The recording sounds good. But the human experience of being together was so special that I find myself reluctant in some ways to listen to it or even preserve it (though I will).

Thanks. I'm lightening up

Thanks for the encouraging comments and email messages.

Let's see. I had a very busy semester, at the end of which (in May) I put together an 11-concert summer chamber music series, raised a bunch of money for it, then performed in the first concert, packed my office for the move to our new building (including sorting through mounds of stuff and discarding 18 years of built-up, unneeded paper), did a week of recording sessions, had a testy spat with a colleague, and taught a week of improvisation workshops. Oh, and some of my cello majors stayed a week after graduation for a cello "boot camp," which took much time and energy, and one is staying for the summer, having multiple lessons per week. And my son graduated from high school, we had the big party. Then my exchange-student son from Hong Kong went home, and we first had a big party for him. And a very close relative's marriage is falling apart, and I'm close to both spouses, and that's been tearing me up.

So the last month or so has not exactly been a vacation!

I suppose it's understandable that my brain needs a little rest before reorganizing and rewriting my writings to shape them into "the book." It's hard to give myself permission to rest and have some fun, but my brain is demanding it.

Meanwhile, looking at this creative process I'm engaged in, I notice two things.

One is that the difference between blogging about improvisation and putting a book together is about the same as improvising and then listening to recordings of those improvisations and turning them into a coherent composition, or the general difference between improvising and composing. Think of how difficult the composition process was for Beethoven, who, somewhat paradoxically, was, by all reports, one of the greatest improvisers in the history of western art music.

The second, which follows from the first, is that putting together a book requires a sort of plotting and planning and organization that I haven't yet done.

So I'm relaxing about the whole thing, and giving up on rushing it. The brain, or certain parts of it, needs some rest. The project is still gestating; the baby won't be born until it's ready. And there will surely be more morning sickness and bloatedness and mood swings, and the labor may be long and the birth pangs nearly unbearable.

No wonder so many real writers drink too much or shoot themselves. Since I don't drink much, and plan to teach until I'm 80 or older, I'll just be a bit more patient with myself.

Monday, June 25, 2007

More on not getting going

I have always had difficulties bringing projects to completion. I get blocked by perfectionism and fear of rejection and ridicule. How many CD projects have I started and not completed? I get to a certain point and my mind just won't focus on it anymore.

I've decided to be as open as possible about my process because I know I'm far from the only one who has this sort of thing come up; perhaps writing about how I work through this will help someone else. And I've been getting some nice messages of support and some good suggestions, all of which are welcome.

Perhaps what I need is a good editor. I've written a lot of stuff, about 150 pages. Surely in the midst of that is a good short book. (If you want to read it, send me an email, ericedberg @ gmail dot com, and I'll send you the file with a table of contents and everything.)

I wrote earlier today about clarifying my intended audience, purpose, etc., but I can't get much done. It's not that I don't have the mental energy to write; I'm thinkng and blogging like crazy, reading, watch improv-related DVDs, etc. This has triggered all sorts of feelings of depression and inadequacy, not uncommon to writers, I understand, and I even created a private blog where I'm working out that stuff (and a search for a new therapist may be on the way, too.

Part of what's going on is that I love the process of spontaneous writing, what I can do in a blog. What's most blogging if not improvising? And the thing about improvisations is that they are just that, quick, ephemeral, spontaneous, usually quickly forgotten, and rarely if ever reshaped and remolded. It's about the process, not a product.

Now I've improvised a lot about improvisation. But now taking those improvisations and turning them into a book, a composition, something with form, something revised, something perfected, well it seems both daunting and, actually boring.

When I was writing my doctoral dissertation, it was much the same way, although that thing could be writen formally and dryly and I knew no one but my supervisory committee, and perhaps a few other doctoral students looking for models, would ever read it. I felt no pressure to make it interesting or compelling.

Am I just bored with it? Am I just not that interested in writing a book any longer? Will some part of me just not allow myself to complete a big project?

I did write some introductory material today, and I went through and labeled most of the posts here, to make it easier to categorize and organize them.

I have a friend who is a real-life professional writer who writes a column in a major magazine and publishes books and all that. Since he manages to finishe the sort of thing I've started, maybe he can give me some advice. Or at least empathy.

Audience and purpose

To pull together all the material I've written here and elsewhere on improvisation, I need to have a clear audience in mind. One thing that's had me stuck is not knowing for whom I want to write. In the blog version, I've been writing primarily to myself and a variety of real and imagined readers. In the book version, there needs to be a specific audience in mind.

I don't see where I actually need to write a heck of a lot more than I have already. I have 150 double-spaced pages in the most recent compilation. The main points are there. It's a matter of organizing, editing, and where necessary filling in some gaps or adding (hopefully non-superfluous) detail.

This is the audience I've been wanting to write for: instrumental music teachers (and their older students), especially private teachers, who know there is a lot of talk going on about improvisation (what with the NASM standards and primary/secondary National Standards for Music Education), would like their students to be able to improvise, but don't improvise themselves, weren't encouraged or taught to improvise in their own educations, and don't know where to begin.

For me, there needs to be a clear sense of making-the-world-a-better-place purpose. And now that I think about it, a long time ago I developed a clear sense that one of my purposes in life is to bring Music for People approaches to music-making to the traditional music-education world. Maybe that's the key, as well as what I know the best: bringing MFP-style improv to traditional music education. Organized that way, "how-to," music history, and personal experience can all fit. My personal experience can be relevant in a way that isn't just a staring-at-my-navel sort of thing.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Stuck . . .

I am totally blocked! Or I just can't get into it. Perhaps there's still some end-of-semester, start-of-summer-concert-series burnout going on.

Oh well, it will start to flow. Meanwhile, I watched a Bobby McFerrin DVD yesterday (how wonderfully inspiring), started Christopher Small's book Music, Society, Education (I've become quite a Small fan over the past year), and squeezed out a bit of new writing--nothing worth posting, though.

So I'm blogging about the process of pulling things together, and we'll see if this helps get things unstuck. Right now, it's really indecision. What form do I want the final project to take? What audience do i want it to reach?

The more philosophical it is, the fewer the actual musicians who might read it. The more personal it is, the more it risks becoming a stare-at-your-navel sort of thing in which I wallow around in episodes of depression and self-pity. And for some reason i can't get the "how to" sort of thing going.

Well, there are far worse fates than sitting around, reading, blogging, and considering directions for a writing project while still receiving a salary all summer.

Monday, June 18, 2007

What I'll do on my summer vacation . . .


It's summer "vacation." I have two months in which to take the material in this blog (and other things I've written) and edit it, revise it, rewrite it, etc., into the book it is meant to be and for which DePauw has given me extra money and some teaching release time over the last three years.

I meant to write a pretty straightforward, mostly objective text to use in improvisation-related courses. My own courses, and anyone else's if they are interested. And part of me wants me to write that book.

Whenever I try to write that one, though, I get blocked. What wants to come out are these personal reflections and commentaries. So I guess I'll just have to go with that flow. Which will make things easier, of course, since I can mostly edit and revise, rather than rewriting things from scratch.