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Thursday, April 14, 2022

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Ten years ago, I started this site as a repository for writings, mostly about the work of my ensemble Sō Percussion. I wanted to document So's work, and also continue a writing habit that I've kept going since grad school.

In that time, I've posted about 35 writings here. Some have aged well, others don't reflect what I might write now.

I can be reached at


February, 2020 

I have written another chapter for the Cambridge University Press. This time, it is in the "Cambridge Companion to Rhythm." My article examines how composers from Messiaen to Reich to Wolfe have conceptualized the role of rhythm in their music and society.


Sō Percussion
The "bitKlavier," a digital instrument invented by Dan Trueman.
My first solo album, the "Nostalgic Synchronic" etudes for bitKlavier by Trueman.

Other than on this site, I have writings in a few other places:

- I contributed a chapter to the Cambridge Companion to Percussion on Cambridge University Press. I write about percussion as a chamber music medium, going back to John Cage as a bridge between old and new.

- For Sō Percussion's production "A Gun Show," I contributed an essay to The Log Journal, and also wrote a book with Lynne DeSilva Johnson, published on The Operating System.

In 2014, I was invited to contribute 4 essays to
  • In The Mutual Benefit Balance, I describe some of the pragmatic considerations composers and performers can observe when searching for satisfying collaborations.
  • Making New (New) Music is about the process that generates great work. The bond of trust between composer and performer(s) is essential, because sometimes radical ideas and crazy left turns produce the best work.
  • An Expanding Paradigm chronicles an ensemble’s growth, from rigidly defined restrictions – which are often necessary to hash out an early identity – to a wide-open vision of what’s possible. It also tackles the thorny issue of cultural appropriation in music.
  • Sometimes Music encourages us to always leave room for surprise. We should never be so attached to a style, aesthetic, or school that we leave our ears deadened to what marvelous music may be out there.

My bio on the So Percussion website

Monday, February 10, 2020

The BitKlavier: A Performer's Perspective

This post takes the format of a formal-ish paper about my experience of developing a practice on the BitKlavier. It goes quite in-depth, and I hope it can be helpful to anybody who wants to engage with this fascinating instrument for performance, teaching, and pleasure. I may add to it over time as I get feedback from people who use the instrument.

- Adam Sliwinski
Feb 10, 2020

Table of Contents 

  • Introduction
  • The Synchronic setting (w/ performance video)
  • The Nostalgic Setting (w/ performance video)
  • Tuning
  • Software Alteration and Interpretation 
  • Reworking Traditional Repertoire
  • Pedagogy



In 2013, I started planning a new solo piece with Dan Trueman. We previously collaborated on Five (and a half) Gardens and neither Anvil nor pulley for Sō Percussion, and he had already written solo pieces for Jason Treuting and Josh Quillen. I steered the conversation towards percussion keyboard instruments such as marimba and vibraphone.

While discussing our project, Trueman introduced me to a new concept he was working on. It was a "prepared digital piano," which grew out of neither Anvil nor Pulley. The instrument was thrilling: metronomes emerged out of the keyboard, long notes washed backwards in waves beyond their release, and any kind of tuning was possible.

I jumped in, asking if I could try the software and practice his first few pieces. As I learned them and my enthusiasm grew, Trueman starting writing more pieces for me. Our mutual excitement yielded the Nostalgic Synchronic set of eight etudes for what he soon called the "BitKlavier." I recorded the entire set for New Amsterdam Records in 2015, which also included a New York Times-reviewed release concert in New York City.

This article is a concise but detailed exploration of the main settings in the early versions of the BitKlavier, and how I adjusted my practice to grapple with them. My keyboard skills, which were not yet adequate for all of the challenges these pieces contained, grew enormously under the supervision of my wife Cristina Altamura.

The BitKlavier and the Nostalgic Synchronic Etudes 

Many of the following score examples resemble traditional piano music. The grand staff, pedal markings, and the notes themselves will be familiar to any pianist. Hidden inside each of them is a new expressive tool, which changes the nature of the keyboard instrument in ways which are impossible with physical instruments: the BitKlavier embodies a vast array of potential behaviors which reside in algorithms rather that mechanisms.

The settings in the BitKlavier fundamentally alter the performer’s mind/body relationship with the keyboard: The synchronic setting introduces metronomes which can be re-triggered, the nostalgic setting introduces the possibility of growth in note intensity where only decay previously existed, and the tuning settings allow for instantaneous tuning changes in the middle of a piece.

The Synchronic Setting 

Releasing a held octave in the opening bars of the first Nostalgic Synchronic etude launches a metronome. The timing of further attacks depends on the consequence of these releases. This is a new concept and physical reality for keyboard playing. In traditional repertoire, key releases on the piano or organ matter in voicing, timing, and duration, but they rarely trigger new musical events which require their own response.

In etude number 1 entitled “Prelude” (example 1), the cue notes in the score indicate what will happen upon release: sixteenth notes built from the octave will play at 100 beats-per-minute. This means that the performer’s release must anticipate the tempo exactly. As I worked through this etude, I developed a habit of physically exaggerating key releases in order to articulate this timing. 

This precision matters as the etude develops. In Trueman’s quartet 120 BPM for Sō Percussion, hitting a woodblock triggers a metronome in the computer. After performing that piece, I was adept at working with these triggers purely as attacks. Although attacks are frequent in percussion playing, note releases are not. Rhythmic and physically exaggerated key releases on BitKlavier became like another kind of attack for me. They helped me mark my way through the piece and ensure that my timing was accurate.

Example 1—The opening bars of Trueman’s Etude number 1, “Prelude”

Since the sixteenth notes at 100 beats-per-minute are triggered by key releases, their placement in the overall flow of time depends on the performer’s action. There is no other quantizing or time-keeping element in the software that determines where these notes are placed. If the performer doesn’t release at the right moment, the piece will sound uneven.

Towards the end of the etude, careful attention to written duration is necessary. In example 2, the eighth note at the end of each group of sixteenth notes must release right with the beginning of the following pulse. Although it is hard to grasp this from looking at the score, a slightly early release would place those sixteenth notes too early, altering the natural feeling of the quarter note pulse underneath.

To reiterate: the sixteenth note cues in the example will not occur there without a correctly timed release. When we see an electronic element cued in a score, we are accustomed to thinking of it as fixed and immutable, but almost all responsibility with the BitKlavier is in the performer's hands.

Example 2—bars 104-109 of Trueman’s “Prelude.”

The synchronic setting multiplies rhythm. It feels like a coiling and setting loose, especially with the key release trigger. It is not always practical to notate the resulting effects into the score as Trueman does in the first etude. The performer must experiment with the score and the settings to understand how the effects relate to the notes on the page (although it is possible to generate Midi mockups through Sibelius using the BitKlavier as a Virtual Studio Technology).

Example 3 illustrates a section of the fourth etude called “Marbles.” While the first etude contains only one setting, in “Marbles” there are two synchronic settings and two tuning settings, which can exist in any combination of setting/tuning. In this case, the synchronic effects consist of quick falling-off gestures rather than metronomic pulses. This means that the performer is (mostly) dealing with a noisy effect rather than worrying about timing.

Example  3, opening of the fourth Nostalgic Synchronic etude “Marbles”
Trueman builds settings into each piece by assigning keys as buttons, often composing their sound into the work. In “Marbles” the synchronic settings are triggered by the highest C (c8) and lowest A (A0) of the keyboard, which speak as normal notes and also toggle between the two settings. This creates an exciting and dangerous new element of keyboard performance, because the performer always must be in the correct synchronic state. A mis-triggered or double-triggered note flips the settings to the invernse. At first, I struggled with this reality, but gradually I acquired an instinct for fixing the settings mid-performance to get back on track.

This is where adaptability from my percussion practice came in handy: this instrument would most accurately be described as “Marbles BitKlavier,” with unique sounds, potential, and behaviors. It must be learned on it own terms, and the brain must develop a unique map of actions and consequences to navigate it.

In the first versions of BitKlavier, the programming behind these settings was more opaque than it is now, so I mostly discovered these behaviors through trial and error. With the latest version of the program, keymaps are easy to locate and reference to see which keys have been programmed with behaviors. In "Marbles," c7 and c#7 toggle the tuning states, which noticeably shift pitches up and down. These triggers operate the same in both synchronic settings, so the performer also has the potential to be in the right or wrong tuning state at any time.

It took me awhile to build awareness of these digital states into my physical practice, and to know how to hear myself properly inside the piece. I needed to develop an intuition for what each of the possible four permutations sounded like and felt like under my hands. Almost none of this is evident from the score. Too much information about the synchronic settings would likely be visually overwhelming on the page, providing extraneous information which would confuse the performer about which notes mattered for execution. Trueman does indicate which setting is being triggered each time it happens. As the performer becomes adept at switching the states it is easy to know from the score where to be.

Example 4 shows the first synchronic setting for "Marbles." Setting 1 features an extremely fast tempo for the repeated notes (1120 BPM) which creates a blinding stream after each trigger. In contrast to etude 1, these synchronic settings are triggered by the attack rather than the release of the note, so quick staccato strokes are appropriate (and necessary) for executing the patterns. There is no uneven spacing in the synchronic effect (beat multiplier), and the accents of the ten notes increase steadily, providing a sense of momentum rather than falling off.

Example 4—Synchronic setting 1 for “Marbles.”

Setting 2 (example 5) features about half the tempo of repeated notes (580 BPM), an inverse of accents (falling off rather than building), and -- via beat length multipliers -- a gesture akin to a bouncing ball being pulled more rapidly to the ground with each bounce. In the most recent versions of the software, this graphical representation of the settings is helpful. Even without advanced understanding of what each setting does, comparing them side-by-side reveals some sense of how they differ.

Example 5— Setting 2 for “Marbles”
The first note of this synchronic effect is almost exactly a sixteenth note at the tempo of the piece. When I perform sections with setting 2, I always hear this doubling and try to time it in my performance. Setting 1 feels more like an effect - a flurry of notes under my hands -- while setting 2 feels like playing with a metronome.

In the excerpt from the first page of “Marbles” (example 3), what appears to be a consistent texture of steady eighth-notes is actually a rapidly shifting exchange between random flurries and sixteenth note echoes.

Another moment in the piece which highlights this contrast (Example 6) is during the “phasing” section, inspired by the technique of phasing in Steve Reich’s music. The performer phases the right hand of steady eighth notes against the left hand, but at each pivot Trueman switches the synchronic setting via A0. When simultaneous notes phase apart to alternating, and the setting switches from 1 to 2, the resulting patterns resemble Reich’s from works like Piano Phase. By the time he composed “Marbles,” Trueman was writing for me, and he enjoyed throwing in moments like this.

Example 6 — Phasing in “Marbles”


The Nostalgic Setting 


The Nostalgic setting on the BitKlavier manages sound duration and growth in new ways. The most common behavior in this setting is where the note plays "backwards" upon release. This means that the exact attack, duration, and decay play in their reversed versions after the note has been released. For a pianist, this is a new and different way of hearing.

Like the synchronic setting, it also makes sound after the pianist is no longer playing or holding a note. The natural correlation between physical movement and sounding note becomes scrambled. The performer has to imagine sounds still to come based on the digital behaviors of the instrument and incorporate that into their playing.

Two examples from the current repertoire for the instrument illustrate this unique challenge. Dan Trueman’s “Undertow” from the Nostalgic Synchronic etudes uses a preparation that slightly tweaks the playback and then adds another element. Example 7 shows the Nostalgic preparation for this piece. The sound wave image from left to right represents the normal attack and decay of the piano note. Upon release, a cursor moves back towards the left to show the growth of the mirror note.

Example 7 — Nostalgic preparation for “Undertow”
The beige bars above and below show where the Nostalgic playback can be altered and augmented. In the case of “Undertow,” the mirror note stops 200 milliseconds before the peak of the swell and then ricochets back again towards decay for 4000 milliseconds (4 seconds). Trueman calls this an “undertow” effect, and it creates a third note-growth direction to listen for. So for an undertow note: 1) attack/decay;  2) reverse, stopping just short of the peak; 3) decay again for 400 ms.

“Undertow” proceeds at a very slow pace (quarter note equals 40 beats per minute), and the performer is responsible for syncing up timing between all these waves. But the waves are not programmed to follow a certain tempo: they match the duration of the held notes. The pieces could be performed just as easily at 80 BPM or 20 BPM without altering any settings. My own internal sense of timing varies widely with this piece, and I tend to play it too fast.

Example 8 shows a section of “Undertow.” Any musician is used to reading these simple quarter notes and half notes, imagining them to be held for the durations indicated and then released. On the BitKlavier, the performer also needs to factor in the behavior of the current settings. In this case, the written duration with its release only indicates about half of the actual resulting sound. The rapid decay of a piano note also means that the final swell of its mirror image is dramatic at the end of the nostalgic effect.

A kind of nostalgic counterpoint emerges: the attack of each note foregrounds each note as it is struck, and then its reverse swell is equally prominent when it arrives later. The half notes will take twice as long to swell as the quarter notes, so they will return in reverse order.

Example 8 — Mirror notes in “Undertow”

In the book of Microetudes which Trueman commissioned, composers found unusual possibilities within these seemingly simple settings. Nate May’s piece “Cygnet” (Example 9) demonstrates how the direct sound of the instrument and the nostalgic effect can be eerily decoupled. For the performer, it also flips the practice of piano pedaling.

Example 9 — Opening of Nate May’s “Cygnet”
Each key on the BitKlavier can be assigned any combination of behaviors from the available settings. Different effects can happen even within one pattern on one hand. In this case, May silences Bb4, c5, Db5, and Eb5 on the Direct setting, so that the notes don’t speak when pressed (this parameter is called "direct"). This does not mean that they can’t have an effect attached to them! (Example 10)

Example 10 - Nostalgic setting for "Cygnet"

May attaches long nostalgic effects to these notes, which he augments by a duration multiplier of 3, and he provides an undertow tail to each. In the opening bars of the piece, we can see that the “x” noteheads are silent, but since the pedal is down from the beginning, their nostalgic effect is also suppressed until the pedal is released. The performer is playing a consistent sixteenth-note pattern, but only the outer F-natural notes make direct sound (reminiscent of Ligeti’s "touche-blocques" from his piano etudes). Then, when the pedal is released, pent-up nostalgic effects from those muted notes swell gently over the repeated patterns.

The pedal is held down to silence these notes and let up to release their sound. The relationship between aural and physical is scrambled from what a pianist is used to. This is one of the most difficult aspects of the piece. While each harmony lasts for two bars, the pedaling occurs in the middle of each pattern rather than when the harmony change occurs. It took me awhile to get the hang of this new relationship, as my brain kept telling me to lift the pedal on the harmony change.



As a performer, I find variations in tuning to be the easiest to cope with in the Nostalgic Synchronic Etudes. I don’t have perfect pitch, and percussionists are usually more concerned about where to hit something and the timing of the notes than by tuning. Trueman wrote many subtle tuning changes into the Nostalgic Synchronic etudes. Every time I perform them in public people react to their strangeness, while familiarity has made them more comfortable for me.

The greatest challenge comes from situations where tunings change rapidly, such as in the combination of tuning and synchronic settings in Marbles which were previously discussed. In that case, the challenge lies more in accurately triggering settings than in coping with a different tuning.

In the case of “Marbles,” there is one catch that took time to get used to: I am frequently playing a fixed physical pattern when the tuning changes, which means that pitches are changing without me shifting to different notes. This is disconcerting at first, because it circumvents the relationship between physical movement and a change in sound.

The tuning shift provides the sensation of creeping up and down, since it resets between a partial tuning based on a root of C vs. C#. None of this knowledge was essential for me to perform the effects, I just needed to adapt to the sound changing while my fingers repeated the notes on the page. I could imagine this being extremely disorienting for a performer with perfect pitch who is used to mapping a note on the page to an exact frequency.

Software Alteration and Interpretation 


My discussion so far has focused on grappling with the settings of BitKlavier as they are given by the composer. One of the most exciting aspects of the instrument is that the performer can adjust it without any specialized programming skills. Just as I make changes to my percussion setups, I also tinker with small alterations in the BitKlavier settings to optimize my performances.

The performer stumbles upon new insights that aren’t evident to the composer while creating the piece. Also, the BitKlavier is so dynamic that it can be continually tweaked to suit the performer’s strengths.

For instance, it may seem while reading my discussion of the first etude that the fixed tempo of the synchronic setting means that you can’t experiment with tempo. While this is true once a performance is off and running, the tempo can be easily and intuitively adjusted (example 11) during practice. It is easy to set up practice tempi where all the synchronic effects still work in proportion to them, which also means that different performance tempi are possible.

Example 11: tempo for “Prelude” reduced to quarter note equals 90 (each sixteenth note is 360)
As I learn pieces better, my relative sense of tempo changes. When I absorb and especially when I memorize music, I gradually begin to hear the marked tempo as being much slower than when I first encountered the piece. Although there are many reasons to consider and observe the marked tempo, the process of developing an interpretation often leads to small changes. If I wanted to adjust the tempo for the first etude a bit faster as my familiarity increases, it is easy to do so.

I could make other small changes that the composer wouldn’t even  know about. For instance, in “Marbles” I could program several notes at the bottom of the keyboard to flip the synchronic settings back and forth. Even though a wrong note will still sound like a wrong note, if a mistakenly hit B-natural still flips to the right setting I’m in better shape than if I had missed both the note and the setting change. Customization becomes part of learning the instrument.

Finally, learning how to alter settings in the program stimulates a hunger for more creative engagement with it. It is so easy to change settings and immediately hear the consequences that it becomes addictive! Musicians who aren’t accustomed to thinking of themselves as composers will find themselves creating spontaneously and potentially spending hours tinkering with them. In one session, I got carried away with seeing if I could build an accurate machine to perform Reich's piano phase just triggering one note (I could), while in another I set different octaves of the keyboard to trigger metronomes at different tempi and improvised with it.

Reworking Traditional Repertoire 


My interest in the BitKlavier has been geared mostly towards new repertoire, but its usefulness in reexamining older music is one of my favorite aspects of the software. The tuning and synchronic functions allow the performer to reinterpret historical repertoire by excavating its original qualities.

The tuning parameter of BitKlavier achieves what would be impossible with any acoustic instrument: instantaneously changed tuning schemes for the entire instrument. This means that we can hear keyboard repertoire from before Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier in the original tunings. Many music students are only peripherally aware that there ever were different tunings, and so it is a shock to hear the variety of color palettes which we no longer use.

Cristina developed a performance of Frescobaldi’s First Toccata using Trueman’s setting for “quarter comma meantone” tuning, the closest we can guess to the way Frescobaldi’s instruments were tuned. The settings do not only bestow an ancient aura to the music; they provide direct insight into the way the piece is structured. The consonant cadential harmonies are sweeter, while the dissonances are far more dissonant than with an equal temperament keyboard. I felt that I could hear why Frescobaldi would want to lean into those dissonant harmonies, which on a modern instrument sound only mildly so.

These realizations are available to anybody who listens to recordings on instruments which are retuned, but with the BitKlavier the ability to play and hear is available with one change of a setting. Anybody with the program can hear the vast range of colors beyond our modern semi-tone system. 

I have used the synchronic setting to enhance and reinterpret Baroque music, especially J.S. Bach. The ability to set trigger notes means that certain notes in the bass can behave like a basso continuo: struck once, they continue to provide rhythmic and harmonic support while the hands are busy elsewhere. In the one-semester trial course we conducted in 2017, one of Kristin Cahill's students, Jai Raman discovered how this technique could enliven his interpretation of a Bach prelude.

Piano students frequently struggle to develop a good sense of time and pulse. As a percussionist, I developed this skill through ensemble playing, where I got years of feedback from other players about whether my playing was fitting in. The synchronic setting provides a kind of “contextual metronome.” It provides a steady pulse, but the student perceives it as coming from within the performance, rather than from a separate device chirping at them on the music stand.



Cristina has a large piano studio, and we have started incorporating the BitKlavier into her teaching. We, along with Kristin Cahill, already have had two successful efforts at incorporating the instrument with piano students: one was a series of private lessons and masterclasses on learning current rep for the instrument, which culminated in a performance at the Sō Percussion Summer Institute; the other was a semester-long Saturday course which was taught more like classroom piano. Each was an experiment, and we learned much about how the BitKlavier could enhance student’s experience and engage them in new ways.

We have been using several categories of the program with students:
  • Learning the new repertoire for the instrument. In this case, students learn pieces from the Nostalgic Synchronic and Microetudes sets of pieces. The unique characteristics of BitKlavier challenge them to learn a new instrument in a new way. 
  • Enhancing traditional and pedagogical repertoire. Sometimes students struggle just to learn pieces for their main lessons. We’ve sometimes found it difficult to interest them in adding other pieces. We are exploring how adding settings to traditional piano pieces (especially the synchronic) can augment their learning and encourage engagement with repertoire. 
  • Physical disabilities. Cristina currently has several students with physical disabilities, including one with few than ten fingers. The BitKlavier offers the possibilities of expanding the sound world of both original pieces and traditional repertoire for students with physical limitations. For example, it is easy to program arpeggiation over bass notes with varying levels of life-like accents and quirkiness. The student gets more feedback from their music-making and the focus is taken off of what they struggle to do. 
  • Creative composition and improvisation. Once a student starts making their own settings, there is no limit to how far their curiosity can take them. Some kids unsurprisingly learn the program better than we do after only a few weeks or months. They can compose new pieces, and also leave a setting in place and improvise with its possibilities.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Creativity in Craftsmanship

the following is a brief talk that I gave as part of a Zildjian/Vic Firth morning session after PASIC 2017. Josh and I were tasked with tackling the concept of creativity. He talked about composing music from scratch, and I dealt with the craft of interpretation and collaboration.

Most of what we mean when we think of “creativity” is creation as an original act. The song or composition is created, and is still identifiable through many possible iterations. If you rearranged Paul Simon’s song “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” with the same words, melody, and harmony, but without Steve Gadd’s iconic drumbeat intro, Paul Simon would still get his royalty check as the songwriter. But we can’t imagine that song without this drumline-cadence opening, can we?

In this case, Gadd as the drummer offers creative input, and actually contributes something wholly original to the composition, but we see this contribution through the lens of the instrumentalist-craftsman enhancing the original work, not as a work in-itself.

Although the members of Sō Percussion now frequently write original music for ourselves and our collaborators, our beginnings as an ensemble come out of the “classical” tradition, where composer and ensemble inhabit separate realms.

In working with a living composer, you have an opportunity to influence the nature of what they create. This is especially true in percussion chamber music, where the first question in the composing process is “what sounds should we use?”

This is my favorite mode of creativity. I LOVE trying to figure out how to enhance other people’s original ideas.

One of the most vivid experiences with this in our career occurred while collaborating with Steve Mackey on his percussion quartet It Is Time. Steve thought composing for Sō offered him an opportunity to do something unique, and possibly even unusual.

He asked each of us in turn to describe how, and more importantly what, we liked to play within the percussion realm. Most of our repertoire up until this point had demanded uniformity, but Steve now encouraged us to find individuality within the ensemble. What he cleverly asked us to do was to show him what it looks, sounds, and feels like when we play the instruments we are interested in.

It takes an extremely confident and savvy composer to solicit this much input from the ensemble. Too much, and you can lose your distinctive voice. Steve had to know that he could come out on the other end with his own style and ideas intact.

Although we had worked very closely with composers before, I don’t think anybody had ever asked “hey you, Adam Sliwinski, what do YOU want to play in this piece?”

I told him that I liked to play marimba. Jason opted for drumset, Josh for Steel Drums, and Eric for a hodge-podge of weird sounds and miscellaneous techniques.

The resulting work ended up as a kind of concerto for each of us in turn. It wasn’t only written FOR us, it WAS us in a fundamental way.

Here is the entire work:

For Eric’s movement, he and Steve experimented with unusual ways to integrate very unlike instruments. He had always wanted to learn to play musical saw, which they worked into the entire piece as a melodic instrument.

For his solo section, he and Steve created a strange china cymbal hi-hat which, instead of clashing against another cymbal when coming together, actually muffled itself against a towel. At the same time, he would often be working a pedal organ to place melodic notes on top of the rhythms. He and Steve worked with an analog metronome, processing delays that would multiply the rhythm.

In Josh’s steel drum movement, it was given that Steve would take advantage of Josh’s virtuosity on the instrument. Steel Drums are completely unique in the percussion world due to their layout - almost none of the physical playing patterns you learn from other instruments transfer over. So it seemed like an opportunity.

But he and Josh took things one step further. Steve asked Josh if there was any way to detune the instrument or to create microtonal relationships. Josh told him that it was tricky, because the single sheet of metal in each drum means that tones must be tuned sympathetically with each other.

They stumbled upon a unique solution, which was to place two identical lead pans beside each other, but to tune one of them exactly one quarter tone sharp from the other. This created the possibility for a 24-note scale, but utilizing a familiar layout for Josh.

This excerpt features the normal double seconds.

My movement was the most familiar territory for Steve. He was once married to Nancy Zeltzman, and was thoroughly familiar with writing for 5-octave marimba.

Our challenge was to realize a concept he had in mind, which was to represent the gesture of a bouncing ball coming to rest. It was easy enough to do one gesture – each bounce was closer together than the last. But Steve wanted to trigger multiple bounces at the same time, and vary the relationships. He asked me if we could do this with a more general gestural notation. I told him that I’d prefer it be notated exactly as complicated polyrhythms, that I would actually be MORE comfortable learning those overlapping gestures as polyphony rather than gestures.

Jason’s movement presented both familiar and unfamiliar challenges for Steve. He and Jason had been improvising together as an electric guitar and drumset duo, so he was intimately familiar with Jason’s playing. He understood how Jason’s drumming would sound within his concept, and set forth realizing them within the piece. He also knew that Jason’s fascination with rhythmic polyphony and coordination on the drumset would allow him to make some fairly unreasonable requests.

You’ll hear in this excerpt that Jason is playing a modified bell pattern with his foot on a mounted cowbell while all kinds of other craziness is going on.

The result of these labors is a work that is both undeniably Steve Mackey’s and yet also inhabits a completely unique place in his output. Every note on the page is one that he thought about and chose. But it is also undeniably a work for Sō Percussion, and not a general percussion quartet.

We wondered collectively if it would ever be played by anybody else, since it was so uniquely crafted for us. To our surprise and delight, it has been. Our own idiosyncratic practices have become encoded in a fantastic composition, and now other players, in learning to play this piece, also learn something of how we ourselves play.

I think it has always been this way – creator and interpreter as two sides of the coin of idea and practice. We are best served by recognizing how healthy and productive this relationship can be for our art form.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Concert Reflection - Making Mistakes

I originally posted this on my Facebook page as a morning-after reflection. It received a lot of nice feedback, so I'm posting it here.

I have one high school student in Princeton. In our last lesson, she was getting ready for a recital, and I talked about the difference between preparation and performance. Bobby Previte formulates this as the difference between being a (responsible) financial planner and a firefighter. One is trying to methodically lay the groundwork for good future results, the other has to jump from one immediate decision to another based on current conditions.

After hearing her play, I told her that there are two kinds of mistakes in performance, and that most audience members are surprisingly adept at sensing the difference between the two. The first are "I am prepared and committed, and something just got past me while totally going for it." NOBODY cares about these, except for pedantic classical fetishists. Definitely non-specialist listeners don't care.

If you are not willing to make these mistakes, you are probably playing scared. All of your energy is diverted towards getting to the next plateau without too much deviation, which neuters the sense of spontaneity and surprise that inhabits most kinds of music making ever invented. None of the people who wrote the music you are working on played it that way. Worse, people's sense of classical music as a fussy, precious genre comes largely from this attitude.

The other kind of mistake is "I'm not fully prepared, I don't quite have a grasp of this material." This kind manifests as indecisive and indistinct. The listener loses the line and intent as the performer's focus dissipates.

After she ran through her program, I helped her see which mistakes fell into the former category, which the latter. We honed our work to refine and polish the program, and to never fall into the quicksand of murky intent and indecision.

Last night, Sō had a great concert here in Vilnius, Lithuania. We played Reich's "Mallet Quartet," which we will also be performing at PASIC next week. It's a piece we've played many times, was written for us, and which we first recorded. I had a total "prepared and going for it" mistake, a memory slip in a moment where it has never happened before. My first instinct was to obey my neuroticism and berate myself for being uneven and flawed. This piece is well known now, a ton of people can play it really well, and we are supposed to be setting the standard.

One of the most rewarding things about teaching is that, when formalizing and spelling out convictions to a student and asking them to believe you, you unavoidably make yourself accountable to the same principles. I remembered vividly how I evaluated the student's performance in terms of commitment, focus, and bravura, and not in listening for mistakes.

If, after decades of performing, I still make mistakes, I might as well accept that this will always occur and enjoy myself. If the world still decides that it's ok for me to be up there onstage, perhaps I should believe that the resulting equilibrium is acceptable.

Further, I'm convinced that mistake-fetish culture comes from everybody playing the same small number of very old pieces over and over and over again. The best part of that culture is observing what happens when layers and layers of interpretation pile onto and interact with each other, the way that literary and religious traditions do. The worst is that the frozen texts generate a kind of terror at approaching them, as if by picking them up you could also shatter them.

I've never felt this way about Mallet Quartet, but I can see it creeping in. The very part that I'm playing is written the way it is because I worked directly with the composer on it. The notes and chord voicings would not have been the same without my input. I of all people should feel comfortable in my own skin here. But I'm aware that, 8 years on, it is already "classical."

Paradoxically, I need to be willing to shatter the music in order to bring it to life. Maybe not as an ongoing intention, but at least as a possibility.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Build the Temple First

The following is a talk I gave on July 17, 2017 on the first day of the Sō Percussion Summer Institute. 

The theme of this year’s SoSI is “New Beginnings.” Originally I called it “percussion beginnings,” but we had an internal communication error and “new beginnings” got printed. And actually, I like it better. The purpose of diving into this music from the 1930’s and 1940’s is not to make a historical obsession out of it, but to - as Basho would say - “seek what the master sought.” The beginnings of American percussion ensemble music represent a batch of fresh ideas - an attempt to revitalize our perspective on what It can mean to make music. In my opinion this is something we should always be trying to do. It’s not enough to say “ok, I guess John Cage or Lou Harrison found some new answers, so now those can be our answers.” Our answers must be different - of course incorporating ideas from the past – but in our approach we can be just as bold and enthusiastic as they were.

While preparing this talk, I thought a lot about why we want to deal with this subject at all. Is it because we’re mostly percussionists, and we’re here in a room together, so we might as well? Is it to honor the fact that these innovators established a new niche in our musical culture? Is it because we now have such things as a professional percussion career, and learning about these artists represents an important rung on the ladder of accomplishment?

I think each of those reasons is sound, but they don’t satisfy my curiosity. Composers like John Cage or Edgard Varese were not just accomplished, they were utterly original. It is almost impossible now to appreciate how far out of the mainstream their ideas were at the time. They looked at the furiously industrializing world around them, and they saw chance, mechanization, electronic media, and cultural mixture.

Those chaotic elements grew out of America’s big, glorious, mixed-up mess of a culture. Many Europeans who came here to observe it in the past found it fascinating but also unnerving. They frequently judged our culture to be immature, because it was never exactly clear who we were, aside from their certainty that we liked to make money. Varese thought it was invigorating. When he walked outside his apartment on Sullivan street, New York City was alive with construction and bustle. Many of those Europeans, including Dvorak and a number of French composers, thought we should pay more attention to our indigenous and slave diaspora music.

We in Sō Percussion identify strongly with this mess, and especially with the way it piled up in New York. Our methods of rehearsing and running our organization are tidy, but our sense of what it means to make music and be culturally American are terribly and wonderfully messy.

Cage’s relationship with Arnold Schoenberg perfectly encapsulated this paradox. Schoenberg had a set of values that informed his sense of what it meant to be a composer, reaching deeply into German music history back towards Bach. He told Cage that, for however innovate Schoenberg’s own methods and techniques were, harmony was still the inalienable building block of music. He admonished Cage that without a better intuition and grasp of it, he (Cage) wouldn’t ever amount to much as a composer. Cage seems to have shrugged at this and forged ahead, believing that rhythmic structures and time could be just as valuable.

A few years later, in his essay The Future of Music: Credo, Cage says:

“The Present Methods of writing music, principally those which employ harmony and its reference to particular steps in the field of sound, will be inadequate for the composer, who will be faced with the entire field of sound.”

That “field of sound” is us, the percussionists. We are also Varese’s “sound masses and shifting planes,” in an era before electronic equipment was sophisticated enough for him to realize them. We are Steve Reich’s “gradual processes,” while still also being Beethoven’s thunder and Mahler’s blows of fate.

I would often begin a talk about Cage with First Construction in Metal, from 1939. In this piece, Cage uses repeating numerical patterns on the macro and micro-levels to build a piece without harmony. But at this festival, we’ll be reaching back all the way to Quartet from 1935. This piece was written in California, during his studies with Schoenberg. It, and pieces like it, prompted Schoenberg to say that Cage was more of an inventor than a composer. Quartet is built purely of rhythmic structure, and with absolutely no indications of instrumentation. The performers are completely free to choose how many, how few, or even what kind of sounds to use. This ultimately means that it’s not even explicitly a percussion piece.

Instead of shoring up his weaknesses to gain greater acceptance, Cage struck out to find people who liked his strengths. He studied with Henry Cowell, and aborbed ideas from Marcel Duchamp. He found Merce Cunningham, David Tudor, and Robert Rauschenberg. And then he taught some people who took his ideas in new and unexpected directions: LaMont Young, James Tenney, the students of Black Mountain College. In the 1960’s and 70’s, he spent time at colleges like the University of Illinois, where a generation of percussion students liked his music and started forming groups to play it. Now, the community of people who use his work as a reference point is enormous, and I’m not quite sure we’d be sitting together in this room if he hadn’t had the confidence to follow his ideas.

Cage seemed to be especially adept at building community. His combination of genial good humor and shocking aesthetic bravery was a winning one for many people who came in contact with him. More and more, when I dig into the work of a brilliant composer, I find that his or her work usually bubbles out of a community, and they they have often found a particularly compelling way to express ideas that were being traded around within their group already.

During the crucial period between 1935 and 1943, Cage’s percussion ideas and genius for community-building lead to a brief explosion of interest in percussion. He wrote letters to composers all over the world asking for percussion music. One of the composers from this year’s SoSI, Carlos Chavez, sent Cage his Toccata. Cage was dismayed to realize that Chavez’s piece contain rolls and other techniques that only trained percussionists could execute, which none of his players were! Cage related to B Michael Williams in his Percussive Notes interview from 1987 that he (Cage) had to cajole and prod another of our composers, William Russell, to compose more percussion music for his players. Cage set up tours in the Pacific Northwest, and eventually gave a famous - perhaps notorious – concert at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York that gained him and the work of his cohorts wider fame.

Until reading Williams’ article, I didn’t even know that Chavez had intersected with Cage. Most of the other composers we feature this year were part of this same community. They traded ideas, played new works with and for each other, and probably hung out a lot.

Varese stands somewhat apart, and his landmark Ionisation comes earlier, having been started in 1929 and premiered in 1933. In this year’s reading packet, Varese describes vividly how he imagined sounds as objects in space, rather than as vehicles for emotion or tradition. Unlike Cage, it’s very difficult to pinpoint how Varese’s work came out of a community. He certainly was influenced by other artists and composers – he mentions Luigi Russolo and the futurists in particular – but we cannot see his work bubbling out of a group effort the way that Cage’s always did.

Do we innovate as remarkable individuals, or primarily as a community? It’s probably always a combination, but the weight we give to one or the other can serve certain agendas. We are inescapably social creatures, so we must see ourselves as always navigating some sort of balance between the two. Too little emphasis on individualism, and we never have a Bach, a Picasso or a Tolstoy. Too much, and we blind ourselves to our very evolutionary nature.

Recently I’ve been reading a fascinating book. It’s called Sapiens, a Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. Harari cites some of the latest archeological and anthropological research to update and upend our ideas of humanity’s pre-history. He returns over and over again to the increasingly prevalent opinion among experts that homo sapiens intelligence and cognitive capabilities has existed in its current form for about 70,000 years. This means that the painters of the Lescaux caves in France 20,000 years ago, or the first humans to sail across an ocean and settle in Australia 45,000 years ago, to say nothing of the ancient Greeks or Chinese, were biologically identical to us. We are no smarter or more creative than they were.

Further, he reminds us that our picture of history is more influenced by what was left behind than what actually happened. The so-called “stone age” was named as such because the tools and structures made of stone lasted a lot better than the more prevalent wooden tools that have long since disintegrated. We can see this in our own field: the artifacts from jazz are recordings, so we focus on performance, the artifacts of classical music are published sheet music, so we focus on compositions, even though both traditions contained both elements.

This means that for any of our ancestors before the advent of written language, we are left guessing about their motivations by interpreting their artifacts. The tendency among scientists is to believe that most of their actions were a response to necessity and environment, in much the same way that evolution proceeds.

The prevailing theories of the beginnings of agriculture, then, describe it as a series of accidents. As Harari explains:

“About 18,000 years ago, the last ice age gave way to a period of global warming. As temperatures rose, so did rainfall. The new climate was ideal for Middle Eastern wheat and other cereals, which multiplied and spread. People began eating more wheat, and in exchange they inadvertently spread its growth. Since it was impossible to eat wild grains without first winnowing, grinding, and cooking them, people who gathered these grains carried them back to their temporary campsites for processing. Wheat grains are small and numerous, so some of them inevitably fell on the way to the campsite and were lost. Over time, more and more wheat grew along favorite human trails and near campsites.”

According to the normal narrative, the march of civilization proceeds from these accidents. Permanent settlements gradually spring up around these wheat fields. A larger population can be sustained, which then requires even more agriculture. Settlements become villages, which become cities. At some point, the functions of art, religion, and culture emerge out of a critical mass of these settlements, and somebody builds a temple in the middle of the town to worship their deities.

This explanation is actually not that far from what we’re taught about the role of culture in today’s society. Once we’ve done the “real” work of basic economic functioning, there might be time and resources left over for a few lucky people to study, create, wonder, and think. This view of art pervades our society, and most of us are inclined to believe that it couldn’t be any other way. We justify Arts in the schools by pointing to better SAT scores; creativity is trumpeted as an important personal attribute for economic growth in the information age - after all, Steve Jobs took calligraphy classes and now his work is worth billions! Our urge to create is seen not as an original human need, but as a link to proper productivity.

But Harari describes a wrench in these gears of economic and social progress. A site called “Göbekli Tepe” in southeast Turkey was discovered and excavated about 20 years ago. Massive seven-ton stone pillars decorated with ornate imagery were found to have been created around 9,500 BCE. They were remarkably similar to the famous pillars of Stonehenge in the UK, but 7,000 years older. Nearby, even larger pillars had been partially carved out of a quarry but never completed. Göbekli Tepe held one secret that baffled the scientists who unearthed it. Unlike Stonehenge and every other similar site ever found, Göbekli Tepe seemed to have been built by hunter-gatherers who ordinarily never organized themselves into bands larger than 100 or 150 people. Some sort of temple had taken shape here, but not by utilizing any of an agricultural society’s mechanisms for social hierarchy, record-keeping, and organization.

The pillars were utterly useless for any economic function. They didn’t grow more food, or protect from weather or predators, and in fact they drained enormous time, energy, and resources from the mysterious people who built them. Scientists were further perplexed to realize that one of the most important genetic variants of wheat from the early agricultural revolution came from about 20 miles outside of Göbekli Tepe. This discovery implied an almost unacceptable conclusion: that, in this area, wheat could have been deliberately cultivated as a response to the needs of feeding the many people who worked together on these giant sculptures.

I’m not sure whether you can turn in a successful archeology dissertation which concludes “they built this because they wanted to and then figured out the rest of the details.” And I’m the least qualified person to make my own theories about a field I know so little about. But if those people from 12,000 years ago had the same brains that we do, I know that this is at least possible. Perhaps they believed that these gods or spirits would benefit their material lives, as many ancient and frankly modern religions do. In that case, maybe they were acting out of economic interest, but not in any way that we can see from observing evolution in other animals. They were imagining something that wasn’t there in any tangible or observable way, and they created a work of art in response.

In a sense, we in our community feed and nourish each other like those Göbekli Tepe temple builders might have done. We are not just a haphazard group of disinterested economic units who cooperate for the survival of our DNA, at least not always. I don’t believe that Art provides salvation, and I don’t like it when people substitute art as a secular religion, ascribing mystical qualities to its creators. But I do believe that it provides purpose, and that it can be imagined and created for no other reason than “because we wanted to.” When enough people get together to do it, those people can do astonishing things with their shared values and goals.

During this SoSI, we will take a day out of our rehearsing and learning to feed 25,000 hungry families in Mercer County. This food-packing event at this SoSI is only happening because we decided to gather and make beautiful, expensive, time-consuming, useless music.

When John Cage wrote his new percussion pieces, the work did not arise out of necessity or expedience, and certainly not out of monetary gain. Nobody commissioned it. He made this work because it inspired him, because it suited the way his brain worked, and because he found other people who also thought it was worth making.

This is all you need in order to embark for yourself. That doesn’t mean that circumstances and finances will always cooperate. But it does mean that you do not need to wait for permission to make the work that burns in your imagination. When planning your next steps, don’t only ask “how” or “what.” Ask yourself “why,” and “who else?” Nobody, least of all four professional musicians, is going to minimize the necessity of figuring out how to put food on your table. These are problems that must be solved in all of our lives. But try not to think of Art as only a means to an end. Don’t apologize for your esoteric interests when the proverbial uncle at Thanksgiving asks “what the heck are you going to do with that?”

You are going to build big-ass pillars that don’t do anything. They will be grand, ornate, and impossible. Along the way, you and the people who join you will continue to feel your way through life, a process that will never, ever end.

Or to put it another way, sometimes you need to build the temple first.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Working Upside Down

Working Upside Down

students in Princeton's chamber music program
Preparing performances of written scores is a kind of alchemy. The process of transmuting a written medium into an aural one can be mysterious. In a heavily notated art form like western classical music, this creates certain types of problems.
  • Writing is not sound (one of these things is not like the other).
  • Gaining proficiency in a wide range of music that spans cultures and time periods usually means employing a combination of score-information and knowledge/experience to decode. 
  • Rehearsing and practicing this kind of music in a group requires you to develop techniques that assist in the alchemy.
A significant part of my current teaching involves explaining these techniques to younger musicians. What often surprises them is how concrete and methodical the process is, and also how the best way to work through a problem is sometimes counterintuitive.

It makes more sense to imagine that practicing music the “right” way as much as possible will produce the best results. This is essentially true. The recommendations in this article are not meant to completely replace that mode of working.

But in the course of changing written ideas into musical ones, the performer frequently encounters barriers to understanding what’s in the score. Tools are needed to illuminate ideas that don’t always fall naturally into your hands.

As an example: I’ve been coaching loads of Mendelssohn, Beethoven, and Dvorak chamber music since Sō Percussion started our position as performers-in-residence at Princeton University. I must admit that I’d always privately relegated Mendelssohn and especially Dvorak to second-tier status compared to a composer like Beethoven. This probably reflects my bias towards strong structural thinking, and my experiences hearing these other composers’ chamber music had left me with the impression of a lot of passionate, melody driven, soupy not-my-thing romantic music.

Through working with students, I delved deeper into these scores. I was surprised (though I shouldn’t have been) that there were so many fascinating details such as accents and dynamics that could spur endless interpretive variation. Whatever impression I had - presumably due to the performances I’d heard - didn’t match up with what I was seeing on the page. Mendelssohn in particular is kind of a maniac for score details.

I started playing around with these details in my coachings. Why, with Dvorak being so interested in cross-rhythms and rhythmic play, should we be thinking about melody all the time? I taught my groups how to feel a proper 4/3 polyrhythm in a way that they could understand the latent tension in allowing it to continue for 40 bars. Many times, the teaching techniques that drew out new results took some aspect of what they’d already hard-wired and flipped it upside down. This could be scary and unfamiliar, but it spurred growth in new directions.

I thought of Brian Eno’s “Oblique Strategies,”, a fascinating set of tools created in 1975 with Peter Schmidt. These cryptic instructions are meant to help shake you out of creative dilemmas. They stimulate multi-lateral thinking. When I visited the website, here were my first three randomly generated strategies:
  • “Make an exhaustive list of everything you might do and do the last thing on the list.”
  • “Do something boring.”
  • “Emphasize differences.”
A lot of the time, what I and we in Sō are doing with chamber music groups is to work through a problem by reframing it, and also to eliminate or highlight some element that might improve their understanding of the score.

I came up with my own list of chamber music strategies. They are neither as mysterious nor as catchy as Eno’s, but they represent a toolkit that we employ all the time. I explain how they apply to my teaching and to Sō’s, and what kinds of results they are meant to produce. Few of these ideas were originally mine, so I try to give credit where I can remember the source. For the most part, they reflect a foundation passed from my teachers Michael Rosen and Robert Van Sice, filtered through the last 15 years of working with my colleagues in Sō. In much of this essay, I’m describing lessons that I saw Jason, Josh, or Eric applying while we taught as a group, as well as past colleagues like Doug Perkins. Some of our core chamber music techniques were also gleaned from watching amazing ensembles like the Tokyo String Quartet as students.

Some of these ideas may seem like ordinary, obvious good practice, applicable at all times. This may be so, but I explain the context in which focusing on that particular element is a counterintuitive but effective move. I imagine that this essay will be updated and expand over time as I think of more techniques.

Here are the ones I'm starting with:

  • Think loud, play soft
  • Find the Pulse 
  • Reverse the dynamic(s) 
  • Put somebody else in charge 
  • To play fast, slow down 
  • Take away the crutch 
  • Run it! 
  • Get away from the instrument(s) and Sing 
  • Learn Someone Else’s Part 
  • Screw Up/Make it Up

Think loud, play soft 

When I was an undergraduate at Oberlin, my teacher Mike Rosen explained his trick for playing soft triangle notes. Anybody who isn’t a percussionist may have a hard time appreciating how scary it is to ding a piece of metal on another at exactly the right time with exactly the right touch. Soft playing is the most difficult, and the student’s first instinct is to adopt a careful “don’t touch the stove” approach. This is inevitably the worst way to do it, because your chance of missing the instrument entirely and completely “whiffing” it increases exponentially.

The student allows his mind and body to adopt every posture of what quietness feels like: meek, careful, thin. But there’s no reason why this has to be. In fact, it’s more often the opposite, where quiet notes require extra focus, confidence, and boldness.

Mr. Rosen first had me play several notes at mezzo forte. This is relatively easy to do. He then asked me what it felt like to play those notes. I said that it felt comfortable: I knew that the amount of force I needed would produce a solid note with plenty of vibration, and also that I wouldn’t miss. He then asked me to play a soft note. I can’t remember whether I whiffed it, but I might as well have. The note was anemic.

His solution was think loud, play soft. He told me to start again playing a mezzo forte note, but to change only one thing in my body: don’t hit it as hard. It worked like magic. The act of playing softer was purely a result of the speed of my stroke (not how hard I hit, which is a misleading concept). A slow yet confident stroke produced a perfect piano note.

I’ve found that this concept applies to EVERYBODY. In a recent coaching at Princeton, I noticed that a string quartet was struggling with intonation and sound quality in an opening quiet section of a long piece. I asked them to play the section full force with vibrato, everything that a string player loves to do. They tried it, and were immediately smiling and playing to each other instead of cringing and gritting their teeth. They played in tune with a beautiful, cohesive sound.

Playing loud and within their comfort zone provided a return to what it felt like to play their instrument well. We repeated the section a number of times, gradually scaling the dynamics and vibrato back. If I felt them creeping away into timidity, we scaled back up to remember the confidence, then scaled back down. Eventually, the exercise worked, and they realized that they could have their focused, engaged sound while also playing more quietly.

This concept helped me a lot in learning how to play snare drum. Most quiet snare drum orchestral excerpts depict normal playing from far away. Honestly, as an originally military instrument, quiet snare drum playing is kind of dumb…it just happens to naturally be a bajillion times louder than a violin, so that’s your job in the orchestra. While perfecting an excerpt like Prokofiev’s Lt. Kije, which depicts a far away military march, the student often falls into these same patterns of trying to achieve soft playing via timidity. It never works, especially once the pressure is on in the audition room.

Mr. Rosen had me play Lt. Kije many times at forte. This was a march, after all, and that’s how it is supposed to feel. Gradually, over a period of days and weeks, I measured it down until I could control it at pianissimo.

Find the Pulse 

This concept falls under the category of “isn’t this always a good idea?” Yes, it is, but the best moment to remember it is not when everything is grooving, but when it’s not. Whatever element is foregrounded in a passage will tend to assert itself when you practice it (emphasis on line and phrasing in a lyrical section), so that sometimes other core elements don’t develop.

This happens most often with the dreaded rubato. Rubato is a perfectly wonderful concept, but in order to “rob” the phrase of time, you need to know where the time should have been in the first place. Many players, as with the “soft to loud” continuum, suddenly abandon all sense of time and proportion when they are trying to give direction to a melodic line or a lyrical phrase.

It is exactly at this moment that I ask them to peel away expression and focus on where the notes lie against the pulse. Some of them have been advised in the past that playing a phrase in a simple, straightforward way against a steady pulse will ruin expressive potential. This is nonsense. Every angle of examination of a way to play a phrase can teach you something about that phrase’s potential. Playing against a steady pulse will teach you a lot.

What they often find is that a brilliant composer – like my new buddy Mendelssohn – may have already thought of where the phrase is going, and might perhaps have planned his rhythmic and melodic ideas accordingly on the page. The student might be so eager to infuse the passage with expressivity as to have never considered just playing it.

For percussionists, this moment happens in marimba chorales, where we play unmeasured rolls. The simplest way to start learning a chorale is just to turn on a metronome and play the chords in time first. Get the proportions in your ear before trying to find all the things you think it could do with pushing and pulling. What you’ll find is that you probably have to do less than you thought in order to make it expressive, especially with a 12-dimensional genius like Bach.

The only time I would ever say not to do this is when music is explicitly unmeasured, such as some types of plainchant or in a contemporary piece with gestural notation.

Reverse the dynamic(s) 

This is specific to chamber music rather than solo playing. What excites me the most about classical chamber music is the complexity of interplay among the musicians. Haydn’s trajectory in developing this throughout his life was astonishing. Most composers after him who wrote for groups like string quartets mirrored this concern with internal complexity and equality among the parts.

Often, young players or pickup groups default to a way of playing that makes intuitive sense: melody is in the higher voice, support is lower, if there’s a piano it’s sort of doing both. But amazing composers rarely keep this default situation in place for long.

What often feels repetitive as listener in a 35 or 40-minute-long piece is when the players don’t look deeply enough to realize details in “supporting” parts that might enrich the composition or distinguish it from more ordinary music. The emotional content of the music – often, in my subjective opinion- doesn’t support the amount of time it takes to unfold, so is there something else?

“Reverse the dynamics” doesn’t have to apply literally to written dynamics. It might also mean to identify primary and supporting roles and try reversing which is foregrounded. This obviously is not how you’ll want to perform the piece, but the rehearsal room is a laboratory, not just a chance to run through the music a bunch of times (although that’s also extremely valuable). The most important outcome of this exercise is that the player of the primary voice (say a first violinist) might be compelled for the first time to listen carefully to the rhythmic underpinning in the viola part. Certainly she never meant to ignore it, but there might have been that one detail that she was too involved in her own notes to notice. The further outcome is that you will find many more opportunities for the voices to interact than you first thought existed. Perhaps that primary voice dips out of the way for a moment while another surges. Did you really know that was happening?

This technique is also great for group morale. A powerful string quartet, for instance, feeds energy from the inside out. A sharp first violinist rides on the wave of the inner voices, rather than dragging them through the piece. Reversing roles asks all of the players to step up and explore their part, which may serve to heighten the rhythmic excitement or contextualize an unusual harmony.

Put somebody else in charge 

When we were graduate students together at Yale, we bonded over a shared interest in chamber music for percussion instruments. Many university percussion programs since the 1950’s have featured this kind of music in their curriculum, but our teacher Robert van Sice approached it in a genuinely fresh way. Taking lessons from great chamber ensembles like the Tokyo String Quartet, he encouraged us to think of percussion similarly, as an intimate flux of constantly shifting energy.

Much of the decorum of classical percussion playing comes from the symphony orchestra section, where the conductor is the main conduit for expression. Performers are encouraged to be stoic and attentive to the action up in the front. Bob had a way of breaking through those norms and saying “why do we have to think this way?” He taught us how to distribute leadership roles around the ensemble in accordance with the demands of the music, and to show that energy vividly.

In any piece we play, we know at all times who is in the driver’s seat. It doesn’t mean that we defer in every way to that player, but we know if things get rocky who will give the signal to regroup. This decision comes out of evaluating our roles within the music and also our own relationships.

Some of our role assignments don’t match intuition. For instance, if one player has an ornate solo part over a steady rhythmic layer, you’d expect the soloist to be the leader by default.

We’ve found that exactly the opposite can be true: if one of the steady supporting players leads, the soloist often has more leeway to take risks with the interpretation of his part since he isn’t thinking as much about leading the other players.

Not all pieces need to be lead at every moment, but putting somebody in charge alleviates the anxiety of not knowing exactly how you’d get out of a section if something went wrong. We all know that white-knuckle feeling when a section goes well in spite of the fact that weren’t entirely sure what would have happened if it didn’t. In our group, we try to shrink the potential for these situations down to zero. Things don’t always go perfectly, but we do always know that we’ll be able to keep the ship afloat, and this instills confidence.

By using my previous strategy (reverse the dynamics), you might have become more aware of a supporting layer that could actually function as a leader. “Putting someone else in charge” could be a response to this shifting environment, or it could be completely arbitrary.

Remember, in the laboratory mindset, there are no negative consequences for trying anything, no matter how badly it turns out. All you will lose is a few minutes of your time. If a section isn’t working too well, it may be that the energy moving around the room is not moving in the optimum direction.

I’ll put this part in bold: this has absolutely nothing to do with who is the best player. If you’re even thinking in terms of the “best” player within your group, I regret to inform you that you do not have a good chamber music group. Beyond that, the choice of the proper leader of a particular section congeals out of trying it a few different ways and analyzing roles.

Try assigning it differently and see what happens. Maybe it’s just for ten bars, or perhaps it’s for a whole movement. Let other players try cueing you, and see if you like to follow. Great chamber music performers make an art out of engaged following. It should go without saying that everything you do is engaged. The word passive has no meaning within any small group playing. Following doesn’t mean that you sit back waiting for somebody else to do the work. On the contrary, it means you’re waiting expectantly on the edge of your seat, anticipating what you know is coming from your colleague, ready to fit right in to what they show you.

My favorite aphorism from Bob van Sice was this: the truth is in the sound. 99 times out of 100, you will be able to solve group problems by trying them out in the room. If somebody else takes a crack at leading a section, you’ll know if it’s right. The factors that determine whether it’s working or not are complicated and related somewhat to intuition, so if there’s a consensus about which is working better, hi-five and move on. Don’t question whether it’s because you or somebody else was “better” at anything.

Putting somebody else in charge can be employed both to decide leadership for the first time, and also to avoid getting bogged down when things aren’t quite working.

To play fast, slow down 

Here’s what is going on in most students’ heads when playing fast music: THIS IS FAAAAAAAST. Up-tempo pieces or movements have a rapid real or implied primary pulse, which as a human being you naturally associate with quicker bodily movements like running or fast dancing. You can’t help but be swept up by that sensation.

Unfortunately, and similarly to “think loud, play soft,” this is exactly the opposite mindset of what’s needed to play fast music well. Like Luke Skywalker deflecting lasers coming at him from every direction, you need to be focused and relaxed in order to play fast. This means that you have to detach the physical reality of rapid notes and a quick implied tempo from the actual functioning of your brain and natural tendency for your muscles to tighten up in “fight or flight” mode.

In chamber music, this usually translates to a frantic sounding music. Sometimes that may be what is called for, but more often the music exists in some kind of dance meter like “scherzo” that still requires good rhythmic command.

Below I’ve embedded one of my favorite things of all time: Maurizio Pollini performing Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata, movement 3. A master like Pollini understands that rhythmic tension and illumination carries far more weight in fast music than just going fast ever could. He perfectly outlines and emphasizes the odd 7/8 meter of the piece using both accent and articulation, shifting his phrasing around as the score dictates. I’ve heard other performances of this piece that felt like blurred clumps of rapid gestures, and have been so disappointed that the odd-meter groove is abandoned. By the time Pollini gets to the end, I always want to throw my hands up in a touchdown gesture. Ok, I sometimes actually do that.

If you tap your finger to the actual tempo, it isn’t really that fast. But your sense of excitement is undiminished.

What does this mean for chamber music? Try to understand the fundamentals of the score within a reasonable tempo before achieving escape velocity. A detail-oriented composer has probably left many juicy elements for you to tease out and master, such as unexpected articulations, cross-rhythms and hemiola, as well as voicing details among the instruments. My experience as a listener is that when details of a score are vivid and transparent, my brain is fruitfully occupied and inundated with plenty of information. When a player is just in frantic mode, I’m only thinking one thing: “gee, that’s fast.”

Remember one other thing: as you get to know a piece better and become more familiar with the information in the score, your perception of tempo will change. What felt fast before no longer will, and you will become more and more comfortable bumping the tempo up. But any audience member who is hearing the piece for the first time is getting all the information at once, and a slower tempo than you are hyped for might be just the way to give them an optimal experience.

Take away the crutch 

Sometimes we overuse the best attributes of an instrument. This is often not a choice, but more of a habit that helps us get to an acceptable result quickly – a shortcut. Seemingly each instrument has one: the pianist’s pedal, the string player’s vibrato, the drummer using too many cymbals or toms. There is nothing inherently wrong with them, unless we are covering up a shaky or uneven foundation.

Each of these crutches allows us to blur the integrity of the underlying issue, whether it be intonation, evenness, solid rhythm, etc.

The great and colorful drummer Bobby Previte has a class he has always wanted to teach about this issue: “Cymbals: The Last Refuge of the Charlatan.” Bobby loves cymbals…cymbals are fantastic. But in drumset culture, it’s generally understood that you can go splashing around on many different kinds of cymbals when you don’t have any good ideas or a solid rhythmic foundation to contribute. The wash of sound and color masks the poverty of your playing.

Take away the crutch is a reminder to yourself and your colleagues that you may end up going around in circles trying to solve a problem unless you peel back an important layer. This layer may actually be called for in the music! But in the rehearsal laboratory, sometimes we have to remove it in order to understand what’s going on.

For instance: in a mixed ensemble of piano plus string instruments, the pianist often inhabits the role of either an orchestra or a kind of complement to all the parts in all the registers. From the first moment that the group sits down together, the pianist wants to feel like he sounds good, and throwing some nice fat pedal down opens up the grand resonance of the sound board. Wrong notes also get blurred and pushed aside. It just feels good. Furthermore, it may actually be indicated and fit the music – especially in late Romantic or early Modern music – and so why not? It would be strange to come into the first rehearsal of a Faure piece playing a piano like it was a harpsichord.

Isolating the pianist’s underlying part requires somebody in the ensemble (or an ensemble coach) to actually say “hey, let’s pull up the pedal and see what’s there.” A string player might not feel confident asking somebody who plays a different instrument to try something like this out. The ensemble struggles with rhythm in a certain section, running the passage over and over again, without ever highlighting the nature of the rhythms in the piano part that they could be listening to more closely. The pianist, meanwhile, has to find out whether she is truly connecting the notes that she thinks she is, or whether a chord could be held simply by the hands without the pedal.

Young – and honestly older – string players know that vibrato is not only idiomatic to most of the music they play, but it also gives you more of a blurry range of intonation rather than having to land perfectly on the note. Less experienced players often deploy vibrato not as beautiful sustaining resonance, but as a mimicked habit that they’ve picked up. Therefore, they do it in the same rich way every single time they strike a note. Obviously this is not my area of greatest knowledge, but I can say that I’ve been amazed at how many problems I can dig up and address just by pulling back or away from vibrato. Once a group has tried simply activating their chords together, they can hear their issues more closely.

The greatest difference I notice between amateur/student performers and professionals is this willingness to root out the deeper problems for the greater good and not have as much fun during some portions of their rehearsal (actually, I think this problem solving is a lot of fun). The musician’s pure pleasure in the music is sometimes subsumed to a greater goal, which is to put the needs of the listener before those of the performer. Each time we in Sō coach a chamber group over an extended period of time, our goal is to turn them from a competent pickup group into a true ensemble. These exercises are part of achieving that cohesion.

Run it! 

Just play it down, top to bottom. This technique may seem obvious, but using it at the right time and in the right way is not always easy to know.

In this context, what I mean is to run it when you’ve become mired in detail work, not as the only thing you feel like doing and “ok see you at the bar.”

The past 5 years, we’ve been working with a theater director, Ain Gordon, who helps guide a process of synthesizing many elements in our theatrical shows – lights, video, movement, music, and everything else. I was amazed at how many run-throughs he made us do in these shows – almost to the point where I was ready to revolt.

But I learned a certain wisdom from this incessant process.

As a musician, I come from a world where many conductors delight in teasing out all of the fascinating interpretive details that make a great piece of music tick. This fascination is often propelled or augmented by the fact that they are conducting very old works that have been studied, absorbed, and reinterpreted. That conductor has a vested interest in making sure some of the details in his performance reflect a unique point of view on a well known text.

Some orchestra players would assume that a conductor who wants to run a piece frequently doesn’t have good rehearsing ideas. Further, they also may be playing a piece that they have known intimately for practically their entire lives. The ebb and flow and trajectory of that piece is imprinted, and so it makes sense to obsess on details.

Making new or unfamiliar music is nothing like this. When the big picture attributes of a piece haven’t been fully absorbed, the players may be wandering in a fog of uncertainty that they are only half-aware of. If they decide to double or triple-down on detail work, they may find that the performance is not coming together.

  1. My recommendation for how often to run a piece is to do it often early and late, and a bit in-between. Running a piece at the beginning of your process is crucial, and you have to be less compulsive about getting everything “right.” Follow the shapes, notice the big events, and get a sense of how large it is. 
  2. Dig into the details with awareness of where each section fits into the larger whole. This goes for a passage within a movement as much as it applies to a movement compared to a whole work. 
  3. At least a week or two before a first performance, run it a lot. You are short on time for fascinating detail work at this point, and run-throughs are your best diagnostic tool for figuring out what to address. Often, it will not be what you were obsessing about
Classical musicians can be on the compulsive side of the human spectrum, and sometimes it feels like we cannot move forward until every single detail is in place. Considering that time is our canvass, I’d invite you to step back from this mentality and consider that large brush strokes are incredibly important to the listener’s experience. You can only evaluate those within the context of your own larger experience of the music.

But, paradoxically, I think you’ll find that the big picture work helps your details enormously. Every single note or passage you play is coming from something and moving on to something else. You need to practice the feeling and habit of moving through the events that precede and follow each section, not just the section itself.

This is especially crucial in long multi-movement works. The composer often places demanding scherzo or rondo movements towards the end, and there’s a certain amount of mental energy that goes into hanging in. The only way to understand what mental resources you’ll have at this point is to play everything else first. Then you won’t be caught by surprise in the performance.

Every time I’m about to play a new piece, I try to remind myself to have a few bad performances first in front of people I trust. They’re pretty much never as good as I want them to be. Whenever I forget to do this or don’t have time, I inevitably have that first exploratory performance at the gig, realizing that I still have a lot to learn about performing the piece, but it’s too late.

Which brings up my last point in this section: running a piece in front of people is different than doing it in rehearsal. I don’t really understand why this is so, but it is. Certain human subtleties of energy-in-the-room will emerge; you will screw something up that never went wrong in rehearsal; a seemingly easy and insignificant detail mattered more than you thought it did to the audience member and you had better polish it up.

Get away from the instrument(s) and Sing 

I’ve come to believe that one of the conductor’s greatest advantages and most important roles is that she is not grappling with the technical details of playing an instrument. All of us who play in large ensembles have had that moment where we see the conductor channeling the composer and emoting and we are thinking something like “easy for you to say, you don’t have 3 new timpani notes to tune in the next 8 bars!”

The nature of the instrument we play in an ensemble has a dramatic effect on the role we play. This is due not only to its place in the tapestry of the score, but also in the physical attributes of the instrument itself. Percussionists often play large, unwieldy instruments, or we assemble combinations of instruments that take up a lot of space. This affects the way we communicate with each other: it stifles intimacy and inhibits eye contact.

I’ve noticed that in many mixed piano/string ensembles, these differences are especially pronounced. The piano is an extraordinarily large piece of furniture which the performer must be in a fixed position to play. The string players need to face out in some fashion so that their sound and presence projects out to the audience. This means that the usual instruction I provide to encourage frequent communication is difficult to manage.

But there is another way. Connecting even once on an important passage helps to solidify your command of playing it together.

Leave the instruments and gather around in chairs, sort of like story time in elementary school. Now, each participant is no longer the wielder of a piano or violin or clarinet – each is simply a human musician. The physical nature of your instrument no longer dictates your role in relation to the other players. Incidentally, this also forces you not to rely on crutches!

Sing, tap on your knee, do whatever it takes to convey the character of your part to your colleagues. It doesn’t have to sound remotely good or be any of the right pitches, and you can make sure nobody else is around when you do it. Find ways that are not ingrained habits of playing your instrument to express the character of the music. This kind of work is tied to the concepts of Dalcroze Eurythmics, although I don’t use any particular methodology when working this way.

When a musician uses the voice and the body directly to convey music, magic happens.

Sō Percussion started using this technique years ago out of necessity. We found that time and instrument availability was often limited, so we learned how to sit down with our scores and rough it out. What we found is that we became that conductor who is unencumbered by instrument management. We were free to emote, lean in, or gather. Our instruments could not either hinder or hide us from each other, and all were equal within the circle.

Several years ago, we were asked to present a TEDx talk at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The organizers of the event wanted to do quick dress rehearsals at the museum to get a sense of what everybody would be talking about. Hauling percussion gear around New York City is not our favorite thing to do, so we begged permission to come in and sing through the piece to try to mock it up for them. They agreed.

We arrived at the rehearsal and explained what the instruments would look and sound like. We sang through the entire piece from memory, mimicking sounds and air drumming while frequently glancing around the ensemble to connect on score details. Once we finished, the organizer said “ok THAT’s what you’re doing for your TED talk.” They were even more fascinated by this process than they were to hear the piece!

Watching this performance will show you almost everything you need to know about how we approach the actual piece. Mimicking the instrument sound heightens your awareness of the character of the instrument you are playing. It attaches you to the sound instead of just walking through it with your hands. Singing your sound to your colleague tells them what role you think it plays in the piece. 

One of the other most important benefits of singing away from instruments is that it is a great icebreaker. Whoever came in with their “first violinist” or “virtuoso pianist” psychological armor is now reduced to “goofy mimicking singer person.” This fun energy ALWAYS translates back to the real instruments. I have never seen it fail (unless the musicians refuse to commit to it).

In western classical music, we’ve drifted quite far from the original roots of most functional music making, where somebody was always dancing or partying or observing a religious ritual. We have emancipated music making from those functions, which I think is a fantastic development. But we must not let our bodies and spirits become disengaged from why we sit in a room together and make sound. Put down your instruments, leave the concerns of grappling with them behind, and be human.

Learn someone else’s part

You are playing a Beethoven string quartet. You know your part, but you and the other players just can’t make it work. As frustration mounts, you dig your heels in deeper, playing your own part with greater determination, certain that you are not the problem.

The paradox in this situation is that in 9 times out of 10, playing your part “better” is not going to fix the situation. If it could, it would be obvious: you can play the passage accurately or you can’t. 

Usually this problem comes about because the players cannot wrench their version of “right” playing to fit into somebody else’s. The great law of ensemble relativity is that if it doesn’t sound good, nobody is right. 

You need to devise ways to delve deeper into each other’s playing, not shrink away into your own. One of the simplest is to just ask them to play for you while you listen and/or follow along with your music. This doesn’t have to feel judgmental or critical…it can be friendly and inquisitive. Notice aspects of how their part works and ask questions: “could I help to support you when this moment happens? Is this a difficult passage? I notice that you lean forward on the tempo more than I do.”

You should also take it upon yourself to work from the score as often as possible. With the extra 30% of energy that you would devote to making a solo piece note-perfect, noodle around with other people’s parts to understand how they work. This will return results ten-fold in chamber music over practicing your own part more.

We underestimate the role that listening plays in good chamber music because we think that our immediate sphere is the one that matters most. The truth is that your anticipation of and engagement in another player’s part is how you figure out where your own playing fits in. We can all tell when we are in a conversation whether the other person is actively listening or impatiently waiting to talk again. Their facial expressions and body language shift sympathetically with our words. We know when we are getting through. Playing music is exactly like this.

Here is the best example from my own world. Below is a video of Sō Percussion playing Steve Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood in a carpenter’s studio for the Lincoln Center Festival. Music for Pieces of Wood is deceptively difficult, but not because the notes are hard to learn and play. The continual challenge is that when another player inserts their own part one note at a time, all of the other percussionists must be anticipating where that note is going to fall so that they are not thrown off their own pattern (which happens to be identical but starting in a different place).

In this situation, knowing each other’s parts is non-negotiable. If you aren’t aware that my first note comes in a space between other notes in the original pattern, you won’t know if you need to adjust. Worse yet, the piece is ingeniously constructed to convince the listener that the beginnings of bars are shifting around constantly. The performers cannot allow themselves to be similarly tricked, or they’ll lose their bearings.

My favorite example is the very last added pattern that Eric plays. The section has three beats to the bar, and he starts adding notes that feel like a downbeat and the second eighth note of the second beat. This would be counted “ONE – two AND – three.” The problem is that his part actually occurs on the second eighth note of beat one and on beat three. The obvious, simple pattern is shifted over by an eighth note from the group pulse. We who have already built up patterns must know exactly how these new notes fit into what we’re playing, or we’ll be tempted to hear his notes as a new downbeat, and the train goes off the rails.

Students are often surprised by how difficult this piece is, because it is fully an exercise in listening more than it is in playing. As far as they’ve often come in technical facility, usually these students haven’t yet developed flexible ears to take in the context around them.

Screw Up/Make it Up 

Sometimes, the way to get something right is to get it completely wrong.

Classical musicians have a common and glaring weakness, which is that we are too linear. We think and work from left to right because we play music where the entire multi-dimensional process of decision-making that went into a piece has already happened and been distilled into the score.

Great improvisers are usually great choosers. They rarely pluck an idea out of thin air, but are assembling smaller worked-out ideas in new and spontaneous ways. This is why John Coltrane would go out in to the woods for 8 hours a day with his saxophone. He imagined that it might be possible to come close to exploring everything that his instrument could ever do, and use that as a vocabulary of resources when playing his music.

As a result, when a musician like Coltrane was faced with a musical forking path, he had that entire vocabulary at his fingertips to take things this way or that. Ornette Coleman delighted in using the “wrong” notes as jumping off points for new ideas. Much of the anxiety and difficulty of playing classical music comes from the fact that we’ve only learned to walk in one direction, usually on a tight rope. The only path is forward, and if the vagaries of life on the stage interfere, we collapse. 

Chamber ensembles have a further challenge: when a fork or a barrier arises, we not only have to make a decision and change direction, we have to do it together. But there is no time to talk and plan how the new conditions “on the ground” change our battle plan. We must have worked on ways of facing adverse conditions and getting around them.

There are two important ways to develop this skill together. After you’ve made sure there there is always somebody in charge (see above), the next step is to start intentionally screwing up. This can be a somewhat orderly process.

The idea here is not to just arbitrarily play your part wrong, but to test decision points in the score. We make students do this all the time, and they absolutely hate it!

If you’ve decided who is in charge of a particular cue or arrival point, agree that nobody is moving on unless that cue is given. This flies in the face of what we’re trained to think about a score, which is that it is inviolable. Well, the composer is probably dead, and (most likely) he or she is not on the stage with you anyway, so really he/she is not the only stakes-holder in the situation.

So what do you do if the cue doesn’t come where you expect? Keep moving forward in the score and hope for the best? Make something up?

The answer depends on the context of the moment, but it approximates to “whatever sounds the best and minimizes the amount of time that nobody knows what to do.” Usually, a bar of improvisation is better than a whole lost section of players not knowing how to proceed. Your determination to press forward in spite of the fact that nobody went with you achieves very little.

We test each other to see if the cues really matter, or whether we’re just on auto-pilot. This addresses another common problem of classical music, which is that performances can become boring and rote if there’s no sense that things could change in live performance.

Allow the leader to put the cue in the wrong place. Refuse to move on until you’re sure you are together.

The second big technique, already incorporated above, is to improvise. Don’t worry about making up something good or interesting or original. Just mimic what you mostly think is happening in this section of music. Stay in the key, imitate the texture. Provide a reasonably convincing version of what the composer is doing. Yes, this is a kind of heresy, but falling apart or being lost for 50 bars is far worse.

Play a section leading up to a cue. Determine that the leader is definitely not going to put the cue in the right place. Be prepared to make something up until you get that cue, and then launch confidently into the new section. I promise that you will need this technique sometime in a live performance. 

Here’s one of the greatest benefits of this way of preparing: even if you have a steady performance where all goes as planned, you will have more fun and play confidently knowing that you can handle adverse circumstances. “Playing scared” is a common issue when performing music that has only one right path. Forget that there’s only one path, play like a musician who can make choices, and you’ll have the performance of your life.