The Singing Man

Photo: Aeioux– A Man Passes on a Bicycle

It’s 4 o’ clock and the Singing Man has just gone by.

Every day at around this time, a man rides by our house on his bicycle singing long, luscious tenor notes. The first few times, I thought it must be someone drunk –a sad reflection of growing up in England where no-one ever sings on the street unless they’re staggering home from the pub on a Friday night– but having seen this man, he seems to be riding straight and looking pretty alert.

I have a feeling that he may have some learning difficulties. What he does have is a beautiful natural tenor voice. He’s never singing anything resembling a melody– just gorgeous long notes. His enthusiasm and joy are infectious. It must feel really good. I love hearing him. I was also thinking today that he’s probably really healthy. All that cycling and singing is a great combination! All together now, “I want to ride my bicycle…”

Music and Consciousness

Photo: Ange Four Seasons– Autumn

I turn on the car radio to a blast of sound from KCRW, our great local indie station. My tastes are eclectic these days, partly thanks to Robert, but today I’m not in the mood to be blasted out of my seat. Instead, I switch to Classical KUSC. Instantly, a different world opens up before me– it’s Mozart’s Flute and Harp Concerto. Coming from a pop station, I’m hyper-aware of its clarity, containment, prettiness, sense of order– it’s almost shocking. And it gets me thinking.
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Just got back from a fantastic concert of Persian, Armenian and Arabic music by the Salaam Ensemble, right here in Ojai. Led by the multi-talented John Zeretzke, these world-class players assembled a couple of years ago at the request of the Music Center of Los Angeles and have since performed in concert and also in schools throughout Southern California.

I was riveted by the consummate artistry, virtuosity, commitment, versatility, sensitivity and the infectious joy of these players. Nothing I could say right now could adequately capture the experience. Apparently, there’s a CD in the works. I’ll be first in line.

Training musicians to be enterpreneurs

Christopher Foley pointed out an article today on his excellent blog, written by Kerry Miller of Business Week on “Teaching Musicians to be Entrepreneurs”. As soon as I saw the title, it felt like a no-brainer. Of course musicians need to be entrepreneurs! What a wonderful initiative! Yet, the proposals in several prestigious institutions in the US have apparently met with a certain amount of resistance and skepticism.
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Artistic Intimacy

I was completely stunned by two video excerpts I saw yesterday on the ubiquitous youtube of Dawn Upshaw singing Messiaen‘s “Saint François d’Assise”, directed by Peter Sellars. (I’m indebted to Alex for posting one on his blog).

The excerpts show the rehearsal process, Dawn’s valiant struggles with the virtuosic music and Peter guiding, encouraging and sometimes being extremely exacting with her.

At times, Sellars appears to be making excessive demands– why on earth is he asking for such elaborate postures and insisting on such a precise quality of movement when the music is already so taxing? Can’t he see that just singing the piece accurately would already be plenty? As a coach myself, I’m an advocate for sensitive treatment of singers, and was at first perplexed.
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Miranda in Spring

Couldn’t resist posting these two photos of our two-year-old cat in an exploratory mood.

Leonard Bernstein lives

When I was studying at the Guildhall in the 80’s, I had the fortune to hear a talk by the late, great Leonard Bernstein. I don’t remember the content now as much as I remember his extraordinary charisma. He was the most wonderful speaker– relaxed, intelligent, warm, provocatively interesting… We all, male and female, fell for for him instantly.

So more recently when I got to hear of the famous “Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts” which ran from the late 1950’s into the 70’s, I was interested to take a look. I borrowed the nine-DVD set from the library, and I’m currently undertaking a Leonard Bernstein marathon.
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Performer as Composer

I thoroughly enjoyed Stephen Hough‘s article in today’s Guardian about the relatively recent separation of the roles of composer and performer.

It is only since starting to improvise and compose over the last ten years that I realize how my education was so separatist in that regard, both at school and university– “composing was for the prodigy and the rest of us probably wouldn’t write anything worth listening to” seemed to be the prevailing attitude.

Stephen writes: “…there is a modesty that is snobbery and one that is laziness, but a much more common form is just plain timidity. Anyone who can read music can write it too – and should. It doesn’t have to be performed, and it may not be very inspired, but to be totally divorced from the act of creation risks making us neighbours rather than relatives to the works we play. And, by the same token, composers who never perform risk writing music that is impractical and even unplayable.”

Looking back, I think I was a ‘neighbour’ to some extent. However much I was taught to analyse the works of others, it never seemed feasible that I might actually write something myself– certainly not sitting at a desk with manuscript paper and pencil. My liberation eventually came through discovering that improvisation (forbidden when I was a child) produced much more satisfying results. It also freed me to play the standard repertoire with greater vitality and insight. Experimenting myself with harmonic or motivic building blocks, I could then understand more deeply from the inside how Bach or Beethoven were composing.

My forthcoming article in American Music Teacher, “Intuitive Improvisation”, lays out in greater detail some good places for the budding improviser to start. Until then, I would just encourage any of you to ‘have a go’ and have fun!

How the Stradivarius got its sound

There’s a fascinating series of diagrams in the New York Times today, revealing the results of scientific study on violins made by Stradivarius and Guarneri. The study tells us more about why these instruments made such a beautiful sound and are still highly revered today. Make sure to click on the different tabs at the top of the article.
P.S. The Mozart excerpts are incorrectly labeled- they are actually from Mozart’s Violin Sonata in G!


I recently returned from a trip to Sydney, and was drawn as usual to the fabulous wildlife. Here’s my first attempt at videoing my favorite Australian inhabitant– the duck-billed platypus. When underwater, playpuses (platypi?) close their ears, eyes and nose and navigate by a kind of radar. They are monotremes, which are egg-laying mammals, and are really extraordinary. Wish I could have brought her home!