Tag Archives: books

Varieties of reading: drawing in and pulling away

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I’ve just finished reading Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Headwhich I’d happily say is one of the best books I’ve read in the last year.  I wonder when the subtitle changed from On becoming an individual in an age of distraction to How to flourish in an age of distraction? The latter, on the UK Penguin paperback edition, makes it sound like a self-help book. The former, which seems to be the American hardcover subtitle, is more accurate because it does greater justice to the philosophical content of the book. On the other hand, Crawford’s whole point is that the idea of individual, autonomous liberty is not necessarily liberating or ideal, whereas connection and engagement with the real world of people and things is. To flourish, you need to radically reconsider the notion of what it means to be individual and free in the first place.

My current reading list: not so much a list as a pile

My favourite part of the day. Coffee and something from this pile.

We kid ourselves if we think that we while we are humming along in neutral, our minds are in some freewheeling state where we think and act autonomously. For many of us, the world is full of things that are making claims on our  “attentional commons,” eroding our right to live in a world without ubiquitous advertising and clickbait. If you don’t believe it, maybe you haven’t heard marketing people talk about every available space, including the back of your bus ticket, as “real estate” where someone can peddle their wares at you, colonising every object you use and see with a corporate flag.

Still reading “Still writing”

What Crawford is getting at is difficult to imagine, unless you’ve had the opportunity to differentiate between different kinds of attention. I’m now riffing on the book, by introducing another, Dani Shapiro’s Still Writingwhich I would put near the top of the list of books which have most influenced me in the last year.  Although it’s not a self-help book, there is one page which made a huge difference to me. It’s where Shapiro distinguishes between two kinds of reading – the kind that draws you in, and the kind that pulls you away (incidentally, pulling away is more or less what the components of the word distraction mean).

I try (most of the time I fail, but still, I try) to begin my day reading. And by this I do not mean The New York Times online, or the Vanity Fair lying on the kitchen table or the e-mails that have accumulated overnight, and which I open at my own risk. The roulette of the in-box! An enticing invitation to a private online sale of gourmet Himalayan sea salt, a high school nemesis emerging from the ether—whatever it is, it’s the opposite of reading. It pulls you away, instead of directing you inward.

[…] When I start the morning with any one of the dozen books in rotation on my office floor, my day is made instantly better, brighter. I never regret having done it. Think about it: have you ever spent an hour reading a good book, and then had that sinking, queasy feeling of having wasted time?

 (Dani Shapiro, 2013. Still Writing, New York: Grove Press, pp. 34-35).

I also try, not always successfully, to do the same. That is, to walk downstairs, without touching a phone or a computer, and pick up a book, and read it. When I do that, I get the same feeling as when I first tried to give up smoking. A visceral twitch that could make you lurch towards the nearest cigarette shop to buy another packet.

But within minutes of picking up a book, just as Shapiro says, you get drawn in, and feel better for it. Her point is that good writing comes from good reading, and that any time you spend reading a well-written book is going to stimulate the writer that you want to be, and other forms of reading – that really need a different term to describe them, since they are so fundamentally different – have the effect of distracting you, pulling you in different directions, until you feel mentally exhausted and vacant.

So this post is by way of celebrating that today, at least, I didn’t do that, I finished The world beyond your head, and —as Shapiro promised—I feel all the better for it.

Playing for ballet class: links, books, suggestions

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I’ve had a few messages recently asking for my advice on where to look for help on playing for ballet class, so it seemed like a good time to do a page on the subject. Please add your own suggestions in the comments. This isn’t a comprehensive review of what’s out there, it’s what I know, and a lot of it is stuff that I compiled myself. If you search for “ballet class sheet music” on the web, you’ll find links to loads of sites where people sell collections of improvisations/compositions for class. The lists below are to collections of music from the concert or ballet repertoire that are suitable for class.

Playing for ballet class is a bit like catering for a multi-faith wedding with food allergies: the suggestions below are the knives, chopping boards, saucepans and staples. Improvising and bringing in tunes that have local relevance or currency are ingredients.

Image of the score of a csárdás: a useful piece if you're playing for ballet class

A life-saving csárdas by Röszavölgyi – one of my “52 ballet playing cards” pieces that you are unlikely to come across in the standard piano repertoire.

Playing for ballet class: resources on this site:

A year of ballet playing cardsThis is a growing list (which will eventually grow to 52 pieces) of free, downloadable music for class, with sometimes lengthy explanations and illustrations.  Although the list is only about half-complete so far, there’s almost enough in there for a class already.

Tips for ballet pianists:  Not all the links here have music suggestions, but many do, these in particular:

Playing for ballet class: Anthologies of music 

  • Russian Ballet Technique, As Taught, by Alexis Kosloff. [free, online]  It was published in 1921, but nearly 100 years later, there’s plenty in there that hasn’t changed. The link is to my blog entry on the book, which links to the online file.
  • Anthologies of music for ballet classes from balletmusic.narod.ru [online, free] Published collections of music for ballet classes scanned as pdfs.  The site’s in Russian, but use Google translate to see what’s there if you’re not a Russian-speaker.
  • A Dance Class Anthology (Royal Academy of Dance, 2005). I edited this book of 50+ pieces for class that was designed to get you out of most ballet class problems. It’s now out of print, but you may pick one up on Amazon or from a reseller who still has stock.
  • Syllabus books of the Royal Academy of Dance. I helped to compile and edit these books since 2007. The Vocational Graded syllabi in particular (Intermediate Foundation, Intermediate, Advanced Foundation, Advanced 1 and Advanced 2) have dozens of examples of suitable repertoire for class – even if you don’t play what’s in the book, the models will be useful. In the end of these books there is a compilation of music for “free” allegro enchaînements. Putting these together almost completely exhausted my list of suitable classical repertoire.
  • Dance and MusicHarriet Cavalli. The first part of the book is a guide for musicians and teachers, the second part is a collection of music for class. The physical format of the book isn’t ideal for a piano, but the material is useful.
  • The Ballet Accompanist’s Handbook by Laurence Galian (1989). Not an anthology, but a brief and unpretentious guide to playing for classes that has excellent practical suggestions for where to look for repertoire. I’m incapable of being concise, but if I could be, this is the book I would have written. All good advice in shorty paragraphs.

Suggestions for further reading/listening about playing for ballet class

What Schenker, Nicholas Cook & a food processor taught me about piano fingering

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"Beyond the Score" and the implement that helped me understand Schenker's complaint about piano fingering

“Beyond the Score” and the implement that helped me understand Schenker’s complaint about piano fingering

By what turns out to be a happy coincidence, I managed this week to combine reading Nicholas Cook’s Beyond the Score: Music as Performance with an accident in which I sliced the end of the fourth finger on my right hand while I was washing up the blade of a food processor (see illustration on the left).  I picked it up and turned it so I could make it really nice and clean, and of course, in doing so, I made a little manual food processor in the sink, to which my finger fell victim. Needless to say, for a pianist, this is bad news. Since it hurt so much to put any pressure on that finger, I didn’t even try until I really had to, which was a class & rehearsal last Thursday night.  One attempt to play on it during pliés  was all it took to realise that I’d have to change my usual piano fingering so that I could play everything without a fourth RH finger. That made quite a difference to tunes that I usually play almost the same way every time: a lot more clarity and power in the phrasing, because you’re not weakening your tune-playing fingers by trying to do other stuff at the same time.

Schenker and piano fingering

As I was playing, I thought of a passage in Beyond the Score where Cook describes Schenker’s disdain for the ‘cult of velocity’ and the 19th century idea of all-purpose fingering systems. Schenker argued that each piece had it’s own ‘special fingering’ and ‘special dynamics’ (Schenker 2000:77, cited in Cook 2013: 41). His own style of piano fingering was apparently aimed at bringing out the sense of the music rather than being convenient physically. He (Schenker) was critical of Broadwood’s English action, saying that

perfect evenness of touch has arrived. Simultaneously, music training has for decades striven for perfect evenness also of the fingers. Thus, we are faced with evenness of fingers and keys. We could be pleased by this development if – what irony! – precisely the opposite were not the crux of the matter: unevenness! The fingers, by nature uneven, must play unevenly: all effort in practicing is in vain if it does not aim at unevenness in performance. (Schenker 2000: 77, cited in Cook 2014: 42) [scroll to the end for references]

I remember having a mental jolt when I read that, given that my entire pianistic life has been spent in the pursuit of exactly what Schenker criticised. I don’t think my teachers drummed it into me – two of my teachers, Trissie Cox and Antony Saunders, would often suggest unusual fingerings like playing a motif in the left hand with your thumb to give it oomph, or sliding from a black key to a white one with the same finger, and then there’s the trick of fingering mordents 1-3-2.  But the aim for evenness of touch is all around you – Czerny, Hanon, and those endless scales and arpeggios that you learn for ABRSM exams.

Schenkerian piano fingering – an example from La Sylphide

I thought no more of it until last Thursday night when I had to play the reel from La Sylphide, which, I can tell you, is pretty hard without a fourth finger. When it got to the B flat section, I realised with the clarity that only having sliced your finger with a blade gives you, that Schenker was brilliantly right about this. Previously, I’d have done the physically convenient thing, and fingered the opening D-Eflat-F in the right hand with the fingering 3-4-5, which makes the whole bar lie under one hand position. But there was no way I could do that this time, and in the heat of the moment, I came out with the fingering below:

Reel from La Sylphide

How I fingered this bit of the reel without a fourth finger. It works.

This section looks so much fun on paper, but it never sounded as good as I wanted it to until I put this “emergency” fingering into action. It’s a bit messy – especially the hopping over your own thumb to play the quaver B flat on the second half of the second beat in the first bar – but it sounds a whole lot better musically than starting with 3-4-5 and using the same hand position for the whole bar. If you finger the slide up to the F with 1-2-3, you get a real punch out of the F and a lot of ring out of the appoggiatura. By hopping from 1 to 1 on the C and D on beats 3 and 4, you get a much better staccato than fingering it 2-4-3-5.  And that hop over the thumb to play the B flat with 2 results in a light staccato for that note – whereas with the ‘convenient’ fingering, this relatively weak beat/note gets the whole weight of your thumb.

Chord voicing and piano fingering

Another insight was chord voicing. The standard pattern for a big chord in the RH is an octave with two filler notes. By the time I’d accidentally hit my injured finger a few times during the piece, there was no way I was going to hit it again for the sake of a major third that was already present in the bass (the chord was a first inversion F major in the right, ACFA, with an octave F in the left) so I missed it out. I realised then that trying to play four-note chords because you can is pretty pointless. Including the fourth finger weakens the attack that you can give to your fifth. The 4th is weak, so you don’t get a lot of sound out whatever note is under it. So, frankly, why bother? Why not try different voicings, and if missing out a note actually sounds better, do it.

Piano fingering in Snowflakes from The Nutcracker

Next on the playlist was “Snowflakes” from The Nutcracker, and for the first time in my life, those twiddles in the right hand actually sounded like a piccolo, because I had to play all of them 1-3-1 rather than sort out how to avoid using my 4th finger. Interestingly, one of the only places where Taneev indicates fingering is during this massive countermelody in the bass – for which he suggests a thumb on every note. Combine that with 1-3-1 for the right hand notes (forget about the lower octaves – they add little, compared to what leaving them out enables you to do, I discovered), and this begins to sound a lot more like an orchestra.

Taneev's fingering for part of Snowflakes.

Taneev’s fingering for part of Snowflakes.

So the happy part of the coincidence is that this embodied-knowledge encounter with a food processor blade, combined with Cook’s wonderful scholarship,  made Schenker’s thoughts on pianism come to life in fascinating, practical ways. It’s rather a messy, bloody and painful way to enlightenment, though. Save yourself the trouble – take Schenker’s word for it, and discover what relying on the unevenness of your fingers can do for making your playing sound more musical.

References

Cook, Nicholas. 2013. Beyond the Score: Music as Performance. New York: Oxford University Press.

Schenker, Heinrich. 2000. The Art of Performance. Heribert Esser, ed., Irene Schreier Scott, trans. New York: Oxford University Press

Dancing masters, music and memory

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deliriumI’m thoroughly enjoying Eric McKee’s book Decorum of the minuet, delirium of the waltz: a study of dance-music relations in 3/4 time. There are books that you grow up with that made the world what it is for you, and other books that don’t yet exist, but they’re so begging to be written, they hang around you like literary ectoplasm. This is one of those, and it’s a joy to read. There are plenty of books and articles on works, performances, composers, collaborations, but not about how music and dance relate in teaching steps and dances. This does the job magnificently, with loads of musical examples.

This is one of my favourite quotes so far, in a section about how dancing masters composed their own music to help teach dance steps: 

“While visiting Paris in 1762, Leopold Mozart observed that “in the whole town there are about two or three favourite minuets, which must always be played, because they people cannot dance to any save those particular ones during the playing of which they learned to dance.” (McKee 2012, 21) 

It sounds like when children or teachers can’t remember an exercise in an exam syllabus until they hear the music that goes with it. But it also points out what is so different about ballet training.  Children can do the same exercise to different music. You can play a famous piece from a ballet for a company class, and dancers don’t fall over because they go into autopilot and start doing whatever ballet it was from instead of the exercise.

RIP Leo Kersley

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Sorry to hear that Leo Kersley, dancer and ballet teacher, and author of my favourite ballet dictionary, died yesterday, aged 92. I would love to have met him. There are two lovely tributes to him from former pupils on a blog post I wrote about A Dictionary of Ballet Terms, and there are links in that post to an interview with him at the The Theatre Archive Project. See also this wonderful story from 2006 by Judith Mackrell about Leo Kersley, skateboarders and Massine.

Of flutter echo, pectoriloquy, music and badminton

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There’s been a strange synchronicity between my reading, work and social lives this week. Last night,  my badminton partner – a sound engineer – dropped the racket cases on the floor at the side of the court just before we went on.

“Ah, flutter echo!” he said.

“Sorry?”

“Flutter echo. Listen”

He dropped the cases again. I listened. The slap of the vinyl cases hitting the floor reverberated back and forth from wall to wall like a computerised tap delay. It was mesmerizing.

“You can measure the size of a room with flutter echo.”

And with that we got on with the game, but for the next hour, every time there was a loud enough sound (like when one of the staff burst a balloon left over from a children’s party that had been in the sports hall that afternoon), all I could hear was flutter echo. I’ve been in that court many times, yet this was the first time I’ve ever noticed the echo, or been able to give it a name.

The story has a strange resonance (excuse the deliberate pun) with the book I’m reading at the moment, The Audible Past by Jonathan Sterne. Subtitled ‘cultural origins of sound reproduction’, it’s a fascinating exploration of the history of listening, and in particular, the development of medical  techniques of  listening (through the stethoscope) as a means of diagnosis. Through such techniques, hearing – not just sight – became means for us of measuring and analysing the spatial.

All of which underlines the blindingly obvious, which is that you hear what you’ve learned to hear, and what you later hear or listen to changes the world that you attend to. My perception of the leisure centre where I play badminton is forever changed by flutter echo. I am more alert to its dimensions, its geometry, and to the hardness of its surfaces.

Translate this into the world of music (or indeed, any kind of aesthetic appreciation), and the notion of ‘innate musicality’ begins to sound slightly absurd.  We’d be worried if children grew up as ‘innate wine-tasters’. I’m not disputing that some people might be disposed for one reason or another to be particularly good at or enthused by music, but if you can teach me to hear flutter echo at my age in a split second, then think what you could teach children.

Desperately seeking (A Pattern Language)

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It’s common to hear people say “These days, you can find it all on the internet” or “You can find everything on Google”.  It’s true in principle, but that’s like saying you can play anything on the piano: yes you can, if you have the technique and the repertoire.

If anything is proof of this for me, it’s my desperate search for a book that I’d come across before on…and that’s my first problem. What was it a book on, exactly? I remembered that the book in question was fascinating, and had been referred to by thousands of authors and webpages. It was a classic. In its own way, it was one of those books like Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions that had influenced an entire generation.  I was beguiled by it, and could remember the illustrations. What was remarkable was the apparent universality of the principles, the enormous scope of the subject.  Some months ago, I nearly bought it, but not quite. Unfortunately, I didn’t put it on my Amazon wishlist, or save it on Delicious, or blog about it.

I know that it had something to do with architecture, something to do with design, something to do with landscape gardening. I seem to remember finding it through a post on Understanding By Design that I read on Profhacker,  but retracing my steps led nowhere. I used every search term that I’ve used above, but got nowhere.

So this morning, I started again in a more systematic way, searching for classic books on design, and went through the lists I found until finally, the title shouted out from the page: A Pattern Language.  My memory is acute: I could remember the shape and sound of the title, and that it  was a collocation of two words not usually seen together that had something to do with design and structure. But the title is so unmemorable that I even had to scroll up again just now to remember what  it was.

I’m posting this to remind myself of the book (this is often what I use my blog for), even though I’ve just bought it from Amazon, but also as a very short essay on the myth of Google, the myth that ‘you can find everything on Google’. The truth is that you can look for anything on Google, but what your looking turns up is predicated on your ability to search, and the terms and knowledge that you bring to it.  And if that’s true of Google, how much truer must it be of any kind of research?