Shine on Harvest Moon

"Shine on Harvest Moon" was first published in 1908 by performers Nora Bayes and Jack Norworth; although, apparently there is some controversy as to the actual composers. This song is one of many moon-themed songs of the era.

The song has enjoyed long-term popularity. In addition to being featured in many films, there are at least two movies with the same title as the song; a 1938 western starring Roy Rogers, and a 1944 bio pic about Bayes and Norworth. It has been recorded by many performers throughout the 20th century and continues to be a popular choice more than a century later.

I'm using sheet music from 1918 that includes chords for uke in D. Since I'm playing a soprano ukulele tuned in C and singing it in the original key, I'm ignoring the chord shapes and just reading the chord names. As with many songs of the tin-pan-alley era, the chorus is more well known than the verses, but I've decided to sing the first verse as well.

Here it is in honor of this week's harvest moon, and the autumnal equinox. Enjoy!

Andrew Bird on Performing

Tumblr's Storyboard posted a nice interview with musician Andrew Bird in February. I've loved Bird's music since I first heard it. His music is eclectic, polished, emotional, and unpretentious. My favorite songs include "Cock o' the Walk" from the Bowl of Fire album and "Measuring Cups" from The Mysterious Production of Eggs. Some may know him from the recent movie The Muppet's, where he performed the whistling for Walter's performance. He also performed a sweet and touching version of "It's not easy being green" for the movie album. He plays violin, sings, and dabbles in many other instruments.

In this interview he focuses on why he tries to capture an amateur spirit in his performances. If I understand him correctly, he's talking about when a performance becomes so highly polished that it lacks personality and emotion. I tend to agree with him that many modern performances lack spontaneity and genuine feeling. Instead of treating each performance as a new opportunity, many musicians tend to try to recreate the exact sound from a studio album. On the other hand, I think his training and skill as a professional give him far more choices when communicating with the audience. Without that skill set any mistakes he made would be awkward, and he would not be able to "use the mishap as fuel to bring the whole performance to even greater heights."

For a little more background on the interview, see the original post at Storyboard.

Let Me Call You Sweetheart (I'm in Love with You)

In honor of Valentine's day, here's a little love song. "Let Me Call You Sweetheart (I'm in Love with You)" is a popular tune from 1910 with music by Leo Friedman and words by Beth Slater Whitson. I'm playing from the 1912 sheet music, which includes ukulele chords along with the piano accompaniment. I made a few minor adjustments, but I'm basically playing and singing as written. You may have heard this song in a recent episode of Downton Abbey (series 3, episode 2).

At the Mid Hour of Night

I'm finally back to making music after the holidays, so here's a new song for my public domain project. "At the Mid Hour of Night" is an Irish folk song from the 5th volume of Moore's Irish Melodies. The poet, Thomas Moore, and arranger, John Stevenson, selected old Irish tunes and wrote new words and piano accompaniments for them. They began publishing these in about 1807 and the volume with this song was first published in 1813. I used the 1882 edition available at the Petrucci Music Library.

Many classical singers know this song from the collection of folksong arrangements by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), which is where I first learned of it. The melody is slightly different from Britten's arrangement, which used the melody "O Molly, dear!" collected by Edward Bunting from a harper in 1800. Petrucci Music Library has the Bunting Ancient Music of Ireland collection available, as well. Instead of using Stevenson's accompaniment – it seems a bit too reliant on tonic and dominant chords for this tune – I've made my own simple arrangement for baritone ukulele to highlight the haunting melody.

One Horse Open Sleigh (Jingle Bells)

Here's one more Christmas tune. This one will be very familiar to most people since Jingle Bells is perhaps the most performed secular Christmas tune (although it was apparently first intended as a Thanksgiving song). I arranged this version for voice and ukulele from James Lord Pierpont's 1857 publication, which you can view via the Library of Congress. The melody is a bit different from the one usually heard, and the chord progression is a little more interesting. Merry Christmas!

After You've Gone

"After You've Gone" was written in 1918 by Creamer and Layton. The 1918 recording by Marion Harris was a hit. It has become a jazz standard performed by many others including Ella Fitzgerald and Fats Waller. I've decided to include the first verse and the refrain (which often stands on its own). I'm also trying out a new mic. I think the sound is much better, but I'm sure I'll find ways to tweak it as I use it more.

Google Universal Orchestra

Google has an interesting lab project called Universal Orchestra. You can participate in live music making with others across the world. The lab is set up in London at the Science Museum where visitors to the museum and those on the internet can collaborate. To participate, you wait in a virtual line to play one of four percussion instruments and then you can select pitches and control rhythm for the different parts of the instrument. The controls are pretty intuitive and It runs in a loop, so you can change the pattern over time. You can try things out on virtual instruments while you wait to play the live ones. There are four additional instruments that can only be accessed by museum visitors. While the music is minimalist in nature, the number of instruments allows for a nice variation in the loops.

Google creates a video of your time with the orchestra; my first attempt is above. I missed the tactile aspect of making music, but I liked the intuitive collaboration with other performers. I think it could be a fun way for new musicians and non-musicians to participate in collaborative music making without worrying about hitting a "wrong" note. Give it a try! Google Universal Orchestra

Give My Regards to Broadway

Here's another tin pan alley tune for my public domain project. This one is perhaps the most famous of those I've recorded so far. George M. Cohan wrote this tune for his musical Little Johnny Jones in 1904; wherein he sang this song in the title role. It has been performed by many, including Billy Murray in a 1904 recording, James Cagney for the 1942 movie Yankee Doodle Dandy, and Judy Garland in 1966 for the Sammy Davis, Jr. Show.

Adventures in Teaching: Women in Music

Wilhelmine von Brandenburg-Bayreuth

Last week, a young pianist was working on a piece by J.S. Bach. I mentioned that his family was full of musicians, his father was one and so were many of his children. She made the point that it was his sons, since women weren't allowed to have jobs, they "just cooked and cleaned." While this is partially true, I told her that women have been well respected as excellent composers and performers as long as we have been making music.

So, in honor of that student, here is part of a list of women in music from Oxford Music. I'm listing a few from those that lived around the time of Bach, but go see the list for important women in music from the year 810 to 2000.

1736 - Julie Pinel publishes a collection of French airs.

1740 - Wilhelmina, Princess of Prussia sees her opera Argenore performed at the court opera in Bayreuth.

1740 - Elisabeth de Haulteterre publishes her Primier livre de sonates for violin and continuo.

There are many more at the link. Timelines in music history: Women in music in Oxford Music Online.

All By Myself

It's been a whole week since I've posted! I'm working on several posts, but none are ready quite yet. Here's my latest video to tide you over.

This song is a gem by Irving Berlin from 1921. Early recordings of "All By Myself" were by Aileen Stanley and Earnest Hare, but it's been recorded by many others including Ella Fitzgerald. It had a resurgence in popularity in the late 1940s when Bing Crosby sang it in the film Blue Skies.

On Practicing

Pierre-Auguste Renoir: Girls at the Piano, 1892 - Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Good friend, colleague, excellent teacher, and director of Musical Beginnings (where I teach most of my students), Linda, has a blog where she has posts on why to practice and tips on how to get students to practice.

Getting students to practice regularly is one of the biggest challenges of teaching music. It generally boils down to making it a priority. Here are a few Practicing Tips from Linda:

·      Stack the deck with loaded choices such as “Can you help me with these dishes or were you about to go practice?” or  “I’d like you to fold the laundry, unless you were on your way to practice…?”

·      A sticker chart, that old stand-by, works well with younger children. The concept of sitting down to practice 5 Steps Up today so they can know how to play a Mozart sonata in many tomorrows may be too abstract to motivate them. The knowledge that they’ll get to pick a sparkly sticker and that five stickers equals a trip to the park isn’t.

·      A no-screen-time rule until practicing has been done.

Part of getting students to practice is understanding why it is necessary. From Linda's Why to Practice post:

…rarely does a child stop music lessons because they just couldn’t abide their 20-minute-a-day practice regimen. Mostly they stop because they so seldom sit down to practice that they’re not learning to play, and so it gradually becomes less important to both them and their parents. And, the vast majority of our advanced students throughout the years have had a practice routine dictated to them, at least at the beginning...

For more excellent advice and insight, visit Teacher Linda Talks. 

French Airs: L'aimable Iris est de retour

This post combines two projects - my public domain project and my French airs project. I've realized the figured bass for "L'aimable Iris est de retour" by Joseph Chabanceau de la Barre. It would have originally been accompanied by theorbo, lute or harpsichord, but I've arranged it for piano which is much more common in a modern voice studio. I'm singing just the first verse; the second verse (called a double) is highly ornamented. Performance of just the first verse was standard practice for voice students in mid-seventeenth-century French airs and makes the piece very useful for lessons today. This way students can work on the French language while singing simpler vocal lines and they can also master the small ornaments that are expected on repetitions. As they master the language and technical skills required they can begin to work on the double.

Here's an idiomatic translation:

The lovely Iris has returned, but she has not changed. She is as indifferent as always, Just as I am enamored as always.

An Adventure in Teaching

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Last week a 9-year-old piano student asked me how long a piece of music can be. It's an interesting question. She asked it because most of her pieces have lasted 30 seconds to about a minute, but we've been working on a piece that lasts more than twice as long as those she has played in the past. Most musical works fall in a range from 30 seconds to several hours. That may seem like a very wide range but if you think of the difference between the length of a pop song on a top forty station and that of an opera from Wagner's Ring Cycle and you begin to get an idea of what might be possible. Really though, a piece of music can be any length of time, as long as there is a way to perform it.

When this student asked the question, It made me think of John Cage's piece Organ2/ASLSP (As Slow As Possible). Cage wrote it in 1987, but it is based on an earlier piece from 1985. Most performances of ASLSP have lasted between 20 minutes and 24 hours, but this performance is going to last (is lasting?) 639 years. It is taking place at a church in Halberstadt, Germany. It began in 2001 with a rest that lasted for 7 months, and it will end in 2640. When a sound is changed, it is a major event in the world of new music scholars, who flock to the church to hear it. You can hear the piece as it plays at the projects's website (German). The next change will happen about a year from now on October 5, 2013.

I mentioned to this student the Halberstadt performance of Organ2/ASLSP. She had one or two general questions. I answered her questions and we went on with the lesson. I figured she would understand that pieces can be very long and forget about this specific piece since it's very much outside her experience. This week, I was pleased but surprised when she brought up the piece again. She had thought about it and had many more questions. What instrument is it for? How long is each note? Does someone sit and play all the time? Do people sit and listen? Why was it written? Can it be done faster and if so how fast? As we talked about it I realized that, for her, music was no longer narrowly defined - in at least one respect, it became limitless and exciting.

French Airs Project

Amadis by Lully

I've been working on and off for years on a project of french airs. It started as one of my DMA projects but needs refining and polishing. I'm hoping these pieces will be useful as pedagogical tools.

So often, singers avoid standard French art song repertoire until they reach the sophomore or junior year of college because much of it is difficult. Not only does it require an understanding of advanced music theory, but with a few exceptions they are quite difficult technically.

The pieces I'm working on are from the 17th and 18th century and use a musical language similar (though highly adjusted to the French language) to those in the standard Italian arias singers are so familiar with (the 24 Italian Songs and Arias; and the newer 26 Italian Songs and Arias).

There are some challenges with this repertoire. First, French as it was spoken at that time was not the same as modern French. This is hardly surprising since 17th and 18th century English is quite different from today's English, but since I'm not a native speaker it's harder for me to adjust. Luckily, I found a highly useful online tool, the ARTFL Project at the University of Chicago. It includes several dictionaries from the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

Second, these pieces are only available in the U.S. as facsimile reproductions. Some are available digitally (see the Lully score above), but others are only in hardcopy form at a few libraries. I was fortunate to visit Oberlin College & Conservatory in the summer of 2008 where the Conservatory Library is full of excellent facsimiles.

Lastly, most of the scores include only a figured bass and vocal line or are for full orchestra and voice. The pieces must be arranged so that those who are not specialists in early music can accompany the singer.

This is the part I'm working on refining now. Although I made arrangements for a recital I gave in December 2008, that performance showed me that they still needed improvement. My goal is to have accompaniments that an intermediate pianist can perform, this way it will be more useful for high school level students who often don't have access to excellent pianists. It will also give more teachers the option of playing for their students.

I'll try to post more information as I continue the project, perhaps including a performance and/or a score.

Toot, Toot Tootsie

This is the latest video in my public domain video project. "Toot, Toot Tootsie" by Gus Kahn, Erie Erdman and Dan Russo was published in 1922. Any later and it wouldn't be in the public domain! The original publication has the highly apropos subtitle, "A Cute Fox-Trot Song."

The song is quite well known, but most performers have sung only the chorus. I've included the first verse, which puts the chorus in the third person rather than in the first person. Instead of the singer telling a girlfriend good-bye in a ridiculously happy way, it becomes a story about a silly man saying goodbye at the train station that the singer tells to friends. Hope you enjoy it!

Check out my Youtube channel for more videos.

Cosi fan tutte: "Soave sia il vento"

This trio is one of my favorite compositions by W.A. Mozart and this is my favorite recording of it. Despite the Peter Sellars production feeling very dated, (hello, 1986!) there is something about this performance that is very touching. Susan Larson plays Fiordiligi (in pink), and I had the honor of studying with her my junior and senior years at the University of New Hampshire. She and the other singers (Janice Felty as Dorabella and Sanford Sylvan as Don Alfonso), along with conductor Craig Smith give a beautiful performance.

Why Is Music Education Important?

A friend on Facebook (and in life), recently posted an article from The New York Times Well Blog on the importance of early music education called Early Music Lessons Have Longtime Benefits. I have mixed feelings about research that touts music as a gateway for other skills. So often music is viewed as important because it's "good for Math skills" or it "teaches children to concentrate" or that it "strengthens a range of auditory skills." Music is presented as a short-cut for intelligence. These things are all excellent side benefits to music, but what about the importance of music for it's own sake. It was a relief to read this article by Perri Klass that points out that music is valuable in it's own right:

There’s a fascination — and even a certain heady delight — in learning what the brain can do, and in drawing out the many effects of the combination of stimulation, application, practice and auditory exercise that musical education provides. But the researchers all caution that there is no one best way to apply these findings.

Different instruments, different teaching methods, different regimens — families need to find what appeals to the individual child and what works for the family, since a big piece of this should be about pleasure and mastery. Children should enjoy themselves, and their lessons. Parents need to care about music, not slot it in as a therapeutic tool.

For me, music is important because it is an essential form of human expression. Developing skills as a musician gives us a way to understand that expression and participate in it. It does this in a way that no other set of skills does. While more skills lead to more options for expression, musicians don't have to perform at a professional level to participate in it and benefit from it. However, in order to give their performance meaning they need appreciate it as a valuable expressive art; otherwise it is purely a trick-based performance (look what I can do) rather than a performance that communicates a fuller meaning.

Music teachers should start advocating for music for it's own sake rather than focusing on side benefits. The side-benefit approach may convince school districts to keep music programs short-term, or get parents to sign children up for lessons. However, when music becomes secondary to the potential cognitive boost it can provide, it suffers as a second-class subject. Music should be treated as a primary subject, as important as reading and math, because along with reading and math (and other subjects) it is a vital part of what makes us human.