Monthly Archives: March 2011

So now they all know. (And my favorite batons)

Today, within the space of about 10 minutes, I emailed pretty much Everyone on my contacts list, posted on Facebook, and posted on my yahoogroup that I will be leaving full time church ministry to pursue my doctorate full time.

And it’s real.

I also bought my first Mollard baton (or rather, it came in the mail today). A twelve inch P series zebrawood handle.  Got it cheap on ebay, because the plastic tube it came in was all squished, but the baton is just fine.

I’ll have to actually work with it, but I think I like it. I honestly tend to prefer slightly unbalanced batons with just a little more weight at the tip than the handle. I know, That’s Bad. But I like it. I like the feeling with a baton that my baton hand is 12 inches longer than my other hand, because it makes feeling and propriacepting that tip that much easier.

But the Mollard is perfectly balanced, and it feels very very different. I will probably use it this Easter, just to see how I like the feeling; if I do, I might get another 14-incher; I love the handle.

I have bad baton karma. Or at least since leaving grad school I have. At IU Jan made us buy this horrific 18-inch balsawood things with long cork handles.  God, I hated that baton. But the reality was that as students, if you had even the faintest instability in your gesture or pattern, it would transmit to the tip of that damn thing magnified by a factor of about 7. So it kept you honest. I’m told the old man in rural Wisconsin who used to make them passed away some years ago.

May he rest in peace.

I still have that damn baton.

Then I also had a couple of fiberglass wood-handled batons–I don’t recall who made them, but they looked and felt like Hamels. One of them got chewed to bits by my dog. That one was my favorite…then another got stolen off my podium between Masses on Christmas Eve of, I think, 1997. Since then I’ve pretty much gotten by on my cheap-as-crap black rubber-handled fiberglass 14-inch thing. It is inelegant in the extreme, but it gets the job done.

So basically this Mollard represents my first self-chosen non-stinky baton. We’ll see how it goes…

Will I ever conduct from an iPad?

Well, no, because Apple pisses me off.*

So I guess the better question is, will I ever conduct from a tablet computer rather than paper?

It’s possible.  There are some conversations at ChoralNet about this topic, with folks weighing in on how they have scanned their 3000-score library into a single tablet and can use it and nothing else.  And apparently things like annotation software for pdf files are much better than they used to be.  One guy talked about sending digital files to his students and asking them to print them out, only to have them just bring their tablets and sing from those at rehearsal.

On the other hand, others mentioned challenges with the tablets that I think are very valid ones, and not easily dismissed:

  • the size. Especially when you get to the Big Works, the print will just be plain old too small. (Then again, I just sang Elijah with an octogenarian at the podium, conducting the whole damn thing from memory. Admittedly, you don’t get to be Helmut Rilling without a certain degree of career-long brilliance, but it still goes to show that by the time we’re in concert, or even by the time we’re in front of an ensemble, we shouldn’t be needing to Read Every Note On The Page, right?)
  • you can only see one page at once. This is not to be discounted–a score opens up and you can see twice as much music.
  • the ability to flip pages easily and randomly (like when you realize you’ve been conducting from memory for a few pages and want to flip forward to the B section). This one I’m not as sure about–I mean, yes, it would be a huge handicap for me and for all of us who are used to paper, but I suspect there’d be a way around it for those who started their careers on these devices.
  • cost. These aren’t cheap. (Someone crabbed on that discussion about the people crabbing about cost, effectively saying suck it up and pay for the product if you want it, but that argument reminds me of the eternal “we decided to sacrifice life’s extras and live on one salary so Mom could stay home with the kids” bullshit used to guilt working moms–some of us work because a single income would mean losing the house and living in a shelter. If the funds aren’t there to buy a tablet, they aren’t there. Sucking on anything won’t make the money magically appear.
  • scan resolution. People say that natively created PDFs work great on these devices, but scanned ones are at the mercy of your scan quality, and annotation ability drops dramatically for scans as well. (Something I discovered when I got a Kindle.)
  • Folder shoulder (for choristers, not conductors)–unless you’re doing something like the Verdi Wreck, a tablet will get pretty heavy pretty fast.

The big one for me, and it’s the one I honestly don’t see going way, is the danger of degradation of data. These devices are designed to become obsolete in a few years as the next model comes in, and we all know how not-long it takes for one form of data storage to become unreadable by the next generation or three of devices. And yet, at the CSO, you can go into the archives and see Margaret Hillis’s or Solti’s or who-ever’s actual marked scores for works, see what they did, see how they thought, see and learn from their process. Musicologists can look at the actual autograph scores of the great Masters, going back to the mind of the composer, hundreds of years back. Now? Is there any such thing as the “composer’s original score,” for those who write on Finale or distribute digitally? What will happen when these scores go out of circulation, or when the devices change too much? Will we utterly lose the idea of the “original” anything? Will we get so dependent on digital data that we risk losing whole bodies of work, decades of performance practice that just Isn’t There any more?

Here’s what I think: currently iPads are The Next Cool Thing. They and their offspring will almost certainly be very valuable tools for the future, and the idea of a college student purchasing one tablet and all necessary textbooks and musical scores just for that book alone is a very intriguing one, and I can absolutely see that happening.

In the meantime, we need to not be so swept away by the Digital Coolness that we neglect to notice the limitations–we need to use whatever medium works best, even if it’s the humble pencil and paper, the yellow dog-eared octavo, the giant Brahms score.  I like my paper scores, and I like my physical books. But I am ordering a tablet anyway…

Now, if they’d make a really big-ass tablet, or something 11×17 that can see two pages at once, I might go for that…I really think some combination of this new wave of “cloud computing” (where the device itself is essentially just an empty slate, and you access the web for everything you put on it) and portable memory, with the new screen technology we’re starting to see that combines back-lit screens with e-ink types of display, may really change our musical universe…but I won’t get rid of my hard copies anyhow.


*no, I’m serious, and I’m not alone–do a google search for “itunes sucks” and you’ll see what I mean.

Learning to learn

This is a sort of sideways ramble inspired by the “rewrites” post over at Stupid Motivational Tricks

In my undergrad Baroque counterpoint class, the prof gave us these little 8-measure assignments every day. Tiny things, easy, right? But he’d grade them mercilessly, and three errors took that assignment into the “D” range.
The catch was that we could re-do every assignment as many times as we wanted until we got the grade we were happy with. I thought he was a total pushover for this, but I took advantage of the opportunity and was one of those who did every re-write every time I could throughout the semester, even though this meant that by the fourth week of class instead of 1 8-bar assignment I was doing not just that assignment but 3-4 additional rewrites of earlier assignments, and so on through the course. Others in the class figured they’d turn in rewrites at the end of the semester.


He was not a pushover–he was a very smart professor.  Because as I went with these rewrites, I was learning more and more, and I got better and better at the process as I went through. The people who just waited till the end to hand in all the rewrites generally didn’t get better grades the second time (those who know Baroque counterpoint know that it’s a house of cards, and if you change/fix one error you’re likely to be committing two new ones in the process), but as the assignments got harder and harder I found myself knowing how to rise to them…(and now I wonder in awe how many hours he used to spend grading the damn things…)
Seems like the best professors I have had aren’t the ones who taught me just about the subject I was taking a class in, they are the ones who taught me how to be a student. I know at the university level it’s a lot about just plain “let’s see who has the chops to make it through and not wash out.” And I am one of the first to favor those without the chops washing out early rather than spending four years and God-knows-how-much money trying and then failing two or three years later. But no one teaches you how to be a student in high school (or maybe some high school teachers get this too).  Teaching students how to learn, and finding the balance between babying them and dumping them unceremoniously into the deep end is, as far as I’m concerned, the most valuable thing we can teach…

Years later I ran into Dr. Strunk again, playing in a wedding band. It was fairly cool to see my old Bach professor jamming out to swing music…

On Writing

I’m not sure exactly why it is, but I love to read what writers have to say about writing.

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is one of my favorite books ever, and I love it more than any of her other work.  Stephen King’s On Writing is another favorite…although when he tells us “adverbs suck,” it makes me cringe. I live for my adverbs; they say things nothing else can say. Or rather, they say things I can’t manage to make anything else say. Stephen King doesn’t seem to have a problem with it, though. That may be why he’s an eccentric multi-millionaire with that rarest of combinations: genuine artistic ability and huge popular following.  (Yes. He does. Genuine artist, that guy. Just because his subject matter tends toward the gross and scatological, don’t dismiss him to the pulp pile. Amazing writer, and one of my favorite theologians to boot. :-))

My senior year in high school, my English teacher gave me the best writing lesson ever: whatever I handed him, he’d hand back and say, “cut it by a third.” Used to drive me crazy. But man, when you are faced with needing to choose which sixty-seven percent of your work gets to stay and what goes, you know that even if some good stuff might get cut, only the best stuff gets to stay.

I just ran across two blog entries, on the same blog, with “writing tips.” One batch from Jonathan Franzen, another from George Orwell.  (Orwell is one of those writers whose work I hate, but whose skill I bow to in great humility. It was for that same English teacher’s class that I found myself, having procrastinated too long, needing to read 1984 and Brave New World over a single weekend. The almost mirror-like contrast between dystopias was striking and has never left me, but by the time I was done I wanted to jump off a tall building. The world is too depressing to so vividly envision more depressing possibilities–I need redemption in my dystopian adventures, or I wonder why I bother.) (Vividly. Great adverb.)

(But, as usual, I digress.  If Mr. King, my English teacher, were ever to read any of my blog entries, he would shake his head at the sloppy and rambly construction.  And tell me to cut them by a third.)

Where was I? Ah yes. Lists. Writing tips. Franzen. Orwell.

My favorite of Franzen’s tips: “Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.” (followed closely by “You see more sitting still than chasing after.” Hell, just go read them all; they are gems.)

Orwell’s tips remind me more of my English teacher’s: stuff like “Never use a long word where a short one will do” and “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.” Also really good advice.

I love to write. I also, appearances to the contrary, love the process of sharpening, carving, pruning, shaping, honing the writing after the fact. I groan as I begin, but when I take an essay or a chapter or whatever it is, and go over it several times with a fine-toothed comb and a reader’s eye, find the bumps and seams and random detritus, and smooth it into a coherent piece of work, the satisfaction is immense.

I did that with my more difficult admission essay…as I continue to stalk the mailbox I find myself reading it again and again, panicking, wondering if it actually maybe sucks and is a piece of crap and they won’t let me in because of it.  But it’s a tight piece of writing.  It says what I needed to say, and it stops when I’m done saying it. It is my voice. Who I am is all over the page. Anyone from any school who reads it will be able to tell exactly who I am and what I’m about, and if they don’t hear in it the voice of someone who could succeed in their department, then it’s probably not a department I’d be happy in. I keep telling myself that…and I keep stalking the mailbox.


Pop Culture and Wagner

Last night we had Family Movie Night. Which basically means we ate dinner in the family room in front of the TV and watched a movie the whole family could agree on–in this case, Star Wars: Attack of the Clones.

It’s sort of funny–we are programmed at this juncture in history and pop culture to consider anything popular and enjoyable by the masses as “pop culture” (extension: junk for the peons), whereas if it is “literature” or “art,” it must not be, you know, fun.

Somewhere in the middle of Clones (spoiler alert, if you are one of the 8.423 people in the United States who has not yet seen it, or if you’re too literate to watch pop culture flicks, or whatever), Anakin’s mother dies, and he gives in to his anger and grief and slaughters a whole tribe of Tusken Raiders. And right before he does it (or after, I forget), we hear this distant hushed nine-note lament– the Darth Vader theme, the leitmotif that will now follow him for the rest of the 4 remaining movies. The music of the Dark Side.

I took an opera lit course in grad school. It was the first class I took after Dr. Mathiesin’s amazing and amazingly difficult Medieval Music course–the class where I first really learned how to be a student. (I dont’ remember jack about medieval music at this point, honestly, but what he taught me about how to learn is something I’ve had occasion to use again and again. It’s sort of tragic that I pulled A’s for four years of college and one year of grad school, and only then with the hardest-won A- of my career learned how to be a real student.) So for opera lit, for the first time in any lit course I ever took, I made a point of going to the library for an hour after every class and actually listening to the music on the listening list, taking notes, paying attention, and incorporating into my psyche what we’d just been talking about in the classroom. As a result, among other things, the “drop the needle” exams were a piece of cake. A piece of cake, I tell you. If any university-level music students should ever read this, please hear and learn: the best, the only way to ace random excerpts on tests is to actually do what the prof tells you on day 1, and listen to them as you study them, all semester.

But I digress.

When we studied Wagner’s Ring cycle, the prof gave us a double-sided sheet with the “leitmotives” of every major character and concept in the opera.  Before going to the library, I sat down at the piano and played them all, learned them, memorized them. I was determined that after years of finding Wagner about as interesting as watching Really Noisy Paint Dry, I was going to figure out what all the fuss was about. Then I went to the library, put on the excerpt assigned to us, and listened to it with libretto on one hand and Dr. Buelow’s Handy Dandy Leitmotif Guide in the other, to see if I could make any sense of it.

Unbelievable.  Within about 4 minutes, I needed neither libretto nor leitmotiv guide; the whole story was right there in the music. There was the ring, there was the curse on the ring, there was Wotan being all Godly and Annoying, there was Brunhilde standing up to him…oh crap, here comes the fire, but before it does, as she’s singing along for what seemed like hours on end, we hear Siegfried’s theme…the guy who isn’t even born yet, but who in the next opera (not so coincidentally named after him) will be fairly central to the whole mess…It was, it is, amazing stuff.

Okay, I still don’t listen to Wagner for fun and hahas, I stick to Brahms or maybe Smashmouth for that, but now I “get it.”

Back to Star Wars. John Williams, in those scores, uses Wagnerian leitmotives liberally throughout–Wikipedia has a fairly decent summary of the different motives for different characters, ideas, etc.–and it’s interesting stuff.  I wonder if music students in 100 years (assuming we haven’t destroyed the planet by then) will study John Williams’ score as an extension of Wagner’s work? Or as an easier-access way “in”?

What I need now is Dr. Buelow’s Handy Dandy Guide to Star Wars Leitmotives, so I can sit down and watch all six movies that way…

14 days left in the first half of March–feeling liminal today.

And so…it’s officially the “first half of March.”

Although…even if they mailed the letters out, they wouldn’t necessarily mean they’d ARRIVE in the first half of the month, right?


Sort of ironic that for someone who wants to devote a career to researching liminality and communitas, these 3 months I’m spending in this particular liminal place myself are my idea of hell on earth, and I’m fighting it for all I’m worth.  Maybe I should do a study on it, the rituals of university application and decision-making, how they effect the initial “threshhold step” into the new identity-less state of the initiand (and yes I meant effect, not affect), taking hopeful students who themselves may be accustomed to being at the top of their fields/classes/whatever and rendering them powerless and without status, almost “nonpersons,” during the period of waiting and preparation…

Or I can just continue to obsessively count days and check the mailboxes.  Surrender to the process, as it were…