Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Power of Paradox: Learning to Appreciate Vulnerability in Music

Just some rather eccentrically expressed, philosophical musings I wrote in my journal a couple of years ago, and subsequently expanded.

One day as I was casually reading through music by Robert Schumann at the piano (one of my favorite pastimes), I found the assertive Novelette in B Minor, Op. 99, No. 2, unusually satisfying and, after playing it through, stood up and said to my mother off the cuff, “I like that; it makes me feel powerful!” Sitting back down at the piano I looked across the page at the next work in the Schumann volume, the A-flat-major Phantasiestück (Fantasy Piece), Op. 111, No. 2. I thought to myself, If the other piece makes me feel powerful, how does this one make me feel? For some reason, the word “weak” came to mind. Entering my mind uninvited, as it were, it proceeded to set up shop. Ironically, the word “weak” seemed to be more powerful than my ability to replace it with a more desirable adjective. I could handle something like “elegant,” “childlike,” or perhaps “sensitive”—but “weak”? In any case, the reason for the intrusion of this undesirable adjective does not lie on the surface. After all, the Phantasiestück is not as assertive or virtuosic as the Novelette; it is a quiet, introspective work. But this shouldn’t diminish my power. After all, the act of lifting something light does not of itself decrease a bodybuilder’s strength. However, having played through the Phantasiestück before, I knew at least subconsciously that not all is as it may appear on the surface.

To illustrate the complexity of this, let’s continue the analogy of weightlifting. Suppose that we could convert piano pieces to equivalent weights: the more difficult the music, the heavier the weight. Let’s take two divergent works as examples: “Für Elise” by Beethoven and the “Perpetual Motion” Rondo by Weber. While the latter is a glittering showpiece that bombards the gawking audience-member with a relentless barrage of blistering sixteenth notes, the former is a quiet, unassuming work, demanding no great technical prowess and considered to be among the “easiest” works Beethoven ever wrote. The million-dollar question is: Which of the two would be heavier if we could magically convert them to weights and endeavor to lift them? At this point, you may be thinking that I am going to say “Für Elise” would be the heaviest, simply because that’s not the obvious answer, and I wouldn’t have brought up the scenario had the answer been obvious. You may also be thinking that it is ridiculous to compare music to lifting weights. Nevertheless, in the weightlifting analogy, I think the Weber would be heavier—but I agree that the analogy is ridiculous. Then why did you bring up the analogy? I did so because it draws attention to our subconscious tendency to think in similar terms. We always seem to be searching for some way to measure artistic achievement, as if it were as straightforward as weightlifting.

Unfortunately, we often tend to judge artistic merit on the basis of how thrilling it is. We love a good show: the more action, the more noise, the more fireworks, the more we cheer. It’s obvious how this mindset among consumers has influenced various kinds of “popular” music, but what about “classical” music? Here, too, we see it, if in a somewhat less-pronounced way. For instance, every year, the music department at Southern Adventist University hosts a concerto competition. A handful of students are selected from the finalists to play a movement from a concerto of their choosing with the university orchestra. I’ve attended the concerts many times over the years, ever since I was a kid, and not once have I heard a student play a slow movement. In fact, when we look at the most famous concertos—the Grieg Piano Concerto, the Tchaikovsky 1st Piano Concerto, the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, etc.—we find that the outer movements (especially first movements) are much more famous than the slower, middle movements. The outer movements are flashier, and since we love a good show, they’re the ones we remember after the concert. And you don’t have to attend many concerts before you notice that audiences tend to respond with greater vehemence if the program ends with a “bang.” For instance, I once attended a rather poor performance of the Rachmaninoff 2nd Piano Concerto; but, poor as it was, it ended dramatically and the audience was on its feet. Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony, by contrast, was unsuccessful at its premiere—not because it was poorly played, but because it ended softly! If you want to get an encore, you have got to end with a flourish—and encores, too, are almost always virtuosic works.

However, it was an unusual encore that really began to influence my thinking on this subject. Vladimar Horowitz provided a famous exception to the “flashy encore rule” when he played Schumann’s “Träumerei” as the final encore at the historic concert that marked his return to Moscow in 1986. According to Horowitz’ record producer, Thomas Frost, “Träumerei epitomizes the powerful effect he could produce with a simple, poetic piece.” Take note of the word powerful here. Frost goes on to quote Horowitz: “‘It may look simple on the page,’ said Horowitz about Träumerei, ‘but it is a masterpiece. The idea that slow lyrical music is easy to play is a common misconception.’” And Horowitz’ performance of the work was very powerful indeed: “An audience camera caught a close-up of a man with a tear slowly running down his cheek while the audience sat enraptured in hushed silence.” This is obviously a deeper brand of power than what I joked about feeling after playing Schumann’s assertive Novelette, which is more akin to what you might feel after beating your bossy mother-in-law at a game of chess or decidedly winning the dinner table argument about politics. But the power that moves people to tears can only be accessed by the musicians who are willing to feel vulnerable. I don’t know how Horowitz felt when he played pieces like Schumann’s “Träumerei” or the “Phantasiestück” I talked about earlier—whether he felt any “weakness” like I do, but I am encouraged by a story he related to Frost:

“Then he [Horowitz] recalled an incident which supposedly took place in the famous piano class of Theodore Leschetizky in Vienna. It seems that a young virtuoso came to town and, upon being asked to play for the class, stunned everyone with a phenomenal display of virtuosity. The most difficult music seemed to flow effortlessly from his fingers. He kept this up for quite some time without as much as a drop of perspiration on his brow. When he had finished the astonishing performance, someone wistfully asked that he play a simple piece by Schumann, such as Träumerei. Obligingly, the young virtuoso complied. After four bars he was perspiring profusely.”

This is what I like to call the “power of paradox,” a phrase coined by singer-songwriter Michael Card (albeit in a different context). The piece is simple and lyrical, yet difficult to play; I feel powerful and in control when I play dramatic, virtuosic music—provided I’ve practiced enough, but I often feel weak and vulnerable when I play simple, lyrical music. No amount of rehearsing can fully eliminate that feeling. One reason for the vulnerable feeling is that relatively small blunders can really mess up the general effect of something like“Träumerei.” Small blunders are not nearly as big a deal in most of, say, Rachmaninoff’s music, as they tend to fade into the great washes of virtuosic sound. Yet there is a still-deeper level to this vulnerability. Schumann’s music seems unusually personal, and came from the heart of a deeply troubled man who attempted suicide and was thereafter committed to an asylum. Thus his music often reflects a certain anxiety and struggle, a split personality, sometimes a sense of resignation, and yet often a profound since of nobility, of serenity and peace that Schumann must have deeply desired. Schumann’s music is tied to the human condition, and when we perform or even simply listen to his music, I like to think we feel some of the same vulnerability that Schumann himself did when he wrote it.

That can make us uncomfortable, whether we’re the people playing the music or just listening to it. For me, playing something like “Träumerei” at a concert is a bit like opening up and telling people something very personal about myself. That’s hard for me, not because the words themselves are difficult to utter, but because, like it or not, I’m afraid of what people might think of my inmost thoughts and feelings—and I’m afraid that I’ll fail to express them adequately. But when I have been willing to be open and vulnerable about what I think and feel and struggle with, people almost always respond warmly. They say things like “Thank you for being open” and “I’m relieved to know that I’m not the only one who felt that way”; sometimes they cry. It immediately breaks through the thin façade of “everything’s fine” that we feel obliged to put up around ourselves, and we instantly feel closer to one another. Music can do the same thing for us on a level that words can’t always reach, if we’re willing to pay attention to the music that expresses itself in the simplest, most unadorned, and, yes, most vulnerable way—music that doesn’t really seem to be trying to be or do accomplish anything in particular, nor even seem to offer any obvious “reasons” for its existence; music that seems to simply say, “This is who I am.

Yes, in our tendency judge music and musicians on the basis of virtuosity and charisma we often miss the boat. It’s the immeasurable aspects of music—the heart and soul—that truly make it meaningful. It’s an enigma, really—almost like magic. And since we want something concrete, that’s hard for us to accept. But when we have the courage to try—the courage to be open, we find that it’s infinitely worth it.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Inspirational Person of the Week: Tom Hammett

In the summer of 2015 I was a jobless “bum” and couldn’t decide what to do with my life. Naturally, the chance to earn a little cash was appealing, so when I was asked to fill in for the regular pianist at Brainerd Presbyterian Church one Sunday in July, I accepted. I had no idea just how significant that choice would prove to be.

I was treated like a rock star as soon as I walked in the door; I’ve never encountered a more friendly, welcoming, and appreciative group of people. The music director, Tom Hammett, and I quickly became good friends. I went back to the church several times that summer and was always greeted with the same enthusiasm. Tom asked me to do a piano concert at the church and, thanks largely to his behind-the-scenes efforts, it drew a large crowd. I had never walked away from a concert with so many donations nor had I ever sold more CDs at a single event.

Tom became my unofficial PR agent—“unofficial” only because I was too poor to pay him anything! He promoted my performances widely and wrote rave reviews about them. He also went to great lengths to introduce me to all the famous musicians he knew—which turned out to be a great many indeed! And when I occasionally get a friend request on Facebook from a well-known musician or impresario, I have to smile and think, Ah… Tom has been at it again.

In the spring of 2016 I found out that I had been accepted to a masters program at the University of Cambridge, a place I’d dreamed of going to for years. The only problem was that I didn’t have enough money and I hadn’t received the scholarships I’d applied for. So I decided to pick the collective brain of Facebook, not expecting anything to come of it. In a public post I asked if anyone might have ideas about potential sources of funding, such as scholarships I wasn’t aware of. A few days later I received a message from Tom: “I may have found a source for nearly HALF of your tuition funds! This is BIG!!!!”

Sure enough, he had. Unbeknownst to me, he’d been busily working behind the scenes and had found an incredibly generous member of his church who had heard me play and wanted to support me. And he didn’t stop there. He went on to assist in organizing a large-scale fundraiser concert on my behalf, and setup a scholarship fund for me through his church, Brainerd Presbyterian. As it turns out, he’s good at more than just music and networking. After the concert, he put on his accounting hat and processed the many donations that came in.

It was also due to Tom’s networking that I was able to attend the national conference of the American Choral Directors Association this year, which turned out to be a valuable opportunity to make new connections and gain more exposure for my compositions. Tom found someone who offered to cover my airfare—the same generous donor, in fact, who’d contributed to my Cambridge fund.

Due to the often-overwhelming amount of competition, my chosen career path is not one that is easy to get into—unless you have people who are willing to help you in a big way. When I met Tom in 2015 I was very discouraged at the lack of interest and rejection my work had often met with—from publishers, conductors, competitions, etc. Tom, with his unbridled enthusiasm about my music, came on the scene at just the right time. His support has been a huge encouragement and has helped me reach major career goals I could not have otherwise achieved. And, because of Tom, I’ve set another goal: I want to learn to be as encouraging as he is and as willing to lend a helping hand to others.


This is the fifth in a series of articles about people who have changed my life for the better. For some background information on what inspired me to write this series, click here.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Inspirational Person of the Week: Herbert Blomstedt

I wrote the following for a festschrift presented to Herbert Blomstedt in Dresden on June 30, 2017, in celebration of his 90th birthday. The festschrift was published by the Förderverein Freundkreis Friedensau, an organization that supports students at Germany's Adventist University. Blomstedt has for many years generously supported the Förderverein, establishing the Waltraud and Herbert Blomstedt Prize for young musicians, which I was privileged to receive during my time at Friedensau.
With Herbert Blomstedt in Dresden, June 30, 2017, at a gala event organized to celebrate his 90th birthday.

I first met Herbert Blomstedt in 2015 while I was a student at Friedensau Adventist University. One weekend in March I played organ for a church service he attended in Hamburg. The knowledge that one of the world’s leading conductors—a fine organist himself—was watching me bumble on the organ was enough to make me a bit jumpy. All the while I was thinking about how I could to make a good impression on the maestro: How would I approach him and what would I say to him after the service?

Well, as it turned out, all of the scenarios I was rehearsing in my brain were unnecessary. At the end of the service, the final chord of my postlude had scarcely died away when I looked up and saw the maestro himself hurrying toward me with a spring in his step and a warm smile on his face. Energetically shaking my hand, he enthusiastically thanked me for my contribution to the service and proceeded to talk with me for a while about my future plans and aspirations.

Several weeks later, I went to hear him conduct the Deutches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin in Bruckner’s 7th Symphony, and I had a chance to speak with him backstage afterwards. The concert, which Blomstedt had characteristically conducted from memory, had lasted some two hours and, by the time I got backstage, it was around 22:30. The then-88-year-old Blomstedt, far from appearing tired, seemed to have been energized by the performance. He greeted my companions and me warmly and animatedly chatted with us, seemingly in no hurry for us to leave. To my surprise, he remembered not only meeting me in Hamburg weeks before, but also exactly what I had played on the organ that day.

While I was so concerned with making a good impression on Blomstedt, I’m quite certain he made the bigger impression on me—simply by being friendly and sending the message that he cared about me and my career, even though he had nothing to gain from the interaction. I believe that’s essentially the same message he sends to the audiences that come to his performances and to the musicians he conducts. When he comes out on stage, he has the same radiant smile and spring in his step that greeted me in Hamburg—as if to say, “I can’t wait to share this music with you.” He radiates genuineness.

So I would like to add my voice to the myriad of others wishing Herbert Blomstedt a happy 90th birthday. I am quite sure that I speak not just for myself, but also for a great many other young Adventist musicians who have been inspired by him. That he cares about the future of music in the Adventist Church is illustrated by the scholarship fund he established for young musicians at Friedensau: the Waltraud and Herbert Blomstedt Prize, which I was privileged to receive during my time there. His support and his example help my colleagues and me believe that, regardless of what others may say or what obstacles we may face along the way, it is possible to have a great career in music without compromising our beliefs, it is possible to pursue excellence without giving way to egotism, and it is possible to bring glory to God and light to an often dark world through our music-making.

Receiving the Waltraud and Herbert Blomstedt Prize in Friedensau, June 2015.
This is the fourth in a series of articles about people who have changed my life for the better. For some background information on what inspired me to write this series, click here.