Long Ago, in a Symphony Far, Far Away

December 7, 2011 at 8:03 pm | Posted in Humor, Strings | Leave a comment
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Like most people, I often wonder what the music scene might like in the world of Star Wars. Certainly we know about the little jazz combos that Jabba the Hutt prefers, but what about what we here on Earth would call “classical music”?

Finally, someone has answered this eternal question, giving us a glimpse into the rivalries of deep space cellists. Steven Sharp Nelson and ThePianoGuys show us what might happen when a cellist from the Sith Symphony Orchestra challenges a cellist from the Jedi Philharmonic.

It’s just too awesome not to share.


Attack (and Release) of the Downtown Busker

November 19, 2010 at 12:01 am | Posted in Humor, Saxophone | Leave a comment
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Late October had put a chill in the air. The grayness of the sky seemed to suck energy from everything. I shoved my hands deep in the pockets of my brown leather jacket as I trod the grimy sidewalks of downtown, heading toward its center in search of something to eat.

The sound came faintly at first, barely noticeable as it began to penetrate the rumbling of tires over brick and the white noise of water rushing from a nearby fountain. As I came closer to my destination, the wailing became eerily recognizable. As soon as I rounded the corner onto Meridian Street, I couldn’t help but cringe as I spotted him at the entrance to an alleyway, honking away in constantly changing pitches. There was no doubt—I was approaching the dreaded downtown busker.

It took several seconds of listening before I recognized the pattern of the sounds coming from his tenor saxophone. It was what can be most complimentarily described as an original rendition of “In the Mood.” I hurriedly took refuge in a nearby Mexican fast-food joint.


Now, there’s nothing wrong with being original. Music can be interpreted in different ways with variations in style. But playing every note fortissimo and clipping every phrase (well, actually, partial phrases), plus pausing a beat after each (partial) phrase is not exactly the most musical of styles and actually could be argued to not be a musical style at all. (Saxophones actually can be played quite musically, as evidenced, I’m pleased to say, by the Wind Symphony’s sax section. It might be in their interest to sue this guy for defamation of instrument.)

I hypothesize that this street musician plays loudly to be heard by as many as possible so as to maximize his handouts. (Please don’t suggest to him that a trumpet can be played even more loudly.) Consequently, he has to take deep breaths fairly frequently, creating a clipped and staccato style where too many breaks are inserted into the “music”.

But I believe his approach is less than optimal. Wouldn’t people be more likely to give and more likely to give more to a busker who shows some true musical talent and entertains them? When people move to the other side of the street or roll up their car windows (which doesn’t help much) to minimize the assault on their eardrums, one’s instrument case is not going to be filled with cash at the end of the day.

If he doesn’t realize this or just doesn’t grasp the concept of musicality, I’d recommend that he go instead for sympathy. Wearing a sign that says “Can’t afford music lessons” would, no doubt, increase the contributions.


After finishing my tacos, I found it necessary to head outside again to make my way back to my office. The busker was still honking away across the street, but in the block or so I walked before his notes faded once again below the sounds of tires and fountains, I wasn’t able recognize the new tune. Fortunately, I didn’t have to attribute that to a lack of musical knowledge.

The walk back allowed me to reflect a bit and realize that there are a couple of good aspects to the busker’s performances. He is attempting to earn a few bucks by doing something more than sit on a street corner with a cardboard sign and, as unmusical as he may be, he is still much more melodic than someone rattling coins in a plastic cup.

What’s the Conductor’s role? (Hint: It has nothing to do with trains!)

November 12, 2010 at 7:58 am | Posted in Conducting, Humor | Leave a comment
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I’m currently working on my Masters in Conducting at Butler  University. When people ask my wife what I’m going to school for, and she tells them “conducting” they almost always reply back something about “Like Leopold on Bugs Bunny?”

It’s interesting how non-musicians interpret what the role of the conductor is. For a large majority, they believe conductors simply wave their arms around until the music stop. Indeed, who hasn’t seen some comic in the paper about conductors?

Train Conductor
(Not a music conductor!)


A conductor does not simply wave their arms and wait for the music to stop. In fact, a conductor’s role in music is much more involved than many people may believe. Here are some different roles a conductor serves:

1) Interpretation: A conductor must study the score, the instruments, the rhythms, the dynamics, tempi, style, and many other elements, and codify an interpretation from this.  Ten different conductors can conduct Mahler 5 ten different ways. Why? Because they each have their own experiences, their own view of what to bring out, and even how they hear things.

2) Show the music: A conductor should be a visual representation of what style of music is being played. If it is a legato passage, the conductor should show smooth, horizontal motion. In a more dettached or pesante section, a heavy style should be displayed, etc. The conductor should be using their conducting to show the ensemble how they want the music to sound, whether it’s loud/soft, staccato/legato, fast/slow, etc.

3) Facilitator: Some conductors believe that they, contrary to what I typed earlier, do not in fact interpret the music. Rather, they follow the markings by the conductor exactly to perform the music “as the composer intended”. In this school of thought, they serve more as a facilitator, guiding the ensemble to the correct “version” as the composer has indicated.

4) Time beater: Yes, some people think the conductor should be a metronome. Their purpose is to keep time. This is especially prevalent in wind band music. Orchestra conductors tend to conduct emotion of a piece, and choral conductors tend to conduct the rhythms of the words. Wind band conductors have gotten into a bad habit of conducting time. Yes, I think it’s important for the ensemble to have tempo and have it presented in a well-organized form (i.e. patterns). However, too few band conductors actually conduct the music short of the left hand crescendo/decrescendo ala The Karate Kid.



So, which of these is a conductor’s role? Ultimately, all of the above. It’s the job of the conductor to know the music, and develop their own interpretation of the music that is based on their experiences. This is part of music-making that is so amazing! How I view Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral is not the same as somone who is older, younger, less experienced, more experienced, etc. They are also responsible for showing how the music sounds with their baton technique, showing tempi, and at times, being a facilitator (chamber music is a great example!)

Next time you find out someone is a conductor, don’t make the obligatory “move your hands” joke. Instead, ask them about their interpretation of a piece they are conducting and you will learn so much!

A Shelf of Musical Quotes

November 8, 2010 at 10:08 pm | Posted in Humor | 1 Comment

I’ve been collecting books since high school, which, after almost two decades, amounts to a lot books. They have provided entertainment, insight, and wisdom; they’ve been invaluable as reference sources; and they’ve helped me kill time. They’ve also been a huge pain in the but when I have to move.

I’ve always liked my book collection, and thought I knew it pretty well. But tonight, I think I’ve finally hit the point where my book collection has become too large, because tonight, I found a book on my shelf that I didn’t know I had: The Music Lover’s Quotation Book, edited by David Barber. Which is the only reason I bring it up now.

Everybody loves a good one-liner, so here are some quick musical quotations from this handy little reference book. Enjoy:

“I know only two tunes: one of them is Yankee Doodle and the other one isn’t.” This sounds like a Victor Borge quip, but it’s really from Ulysses S. Grant.

“In order to compose, all you need to do is remember a tune that nobody else has thought of.” Robert Schumann

“Music, to create harmony, must investigate discord.” Plutarch. I like this one because so many other ideas can be substituted for music and still make sense.

“Eunuch: A man who has had his works cut out for him.” Robert Byrne. I’m not entirely sure why this is in a book of musical quotations, unless the editor is confusing eunuchs and castrati. But it’s still a nice quote.

“Harpists spend 90 percent of their lives tuning their harps and 10 percent playing out of tune.” Igor Stravinsky

To be fair, Sergei Prokofiev called Stravinsky’s music “Bach on the wrong notes.”

And finally, Ambrose Bierce’s definition of piano, from his The Devil’s Dictionary: “Piano: A parlor utensil used for subduing the impenitent visitor. It is operated by depressing the keys of the machine and the spirits of the audience.”

Classical Comedy

November 5, 2010 at 10:32 pm | Posted in Humor | Leave a comment
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Although it’s true that a symphony orchestra is most often seen in concert wearing black tuxedos and formal dresses, it isn’t true that classical music is all formal and serious all the time. The sometimes odd and dogmatic conventions of western classical music, combined with the often outrageous and sometimes unbelievable personal lives of classical music’s greatest names, provide a surplus of fodder for comedians. Those who combine their love and knowledge of music with gut-wrenching comedy are a breed apart. Here are some of the best.

Spike Jones and his City Slickers

When I was in elementary school, someone bought me a three-record set of Spike Jones’s recordings. I wish I could remember who bought it for me so I could thank them now. Spike Jones and his City Slickers recorded through the 1940s and early 1950s a comedy show that often used “arrangements” (deconstructions might be a better word) of popular and classical tunes. His band, though, wasn’t a normal band. Playing on  beat-up wind instruments and accompanied by kitchen utensils, workshop tools, and, well, junk, his City Slickers presented their brilliant, hobo-ified renditions of well-known works.

When I first started listening to those records, I didn’t know what I was hearing. It turns out that I was getting my first exposure to classical mainstays like Liszt’s Liebestraume, Bizet’s Carmen, Ponchieli’s Dance of the Hours, and this gem, Rossini’s William Tell Overture (including the parts NOT associated with the Lone Ranger) set against the backdrop of a horse race:

Victor Borge

Perhaps the father of classical music comedy, Victor Borge is well-known (at least to people of a certain age) outside the musical sphere as the creator of Phonetic Punctuation, a fun little way to read in which you “pronounce” all the punctuation. But if that’s all you know of Victor Borge, you don’t know the half of him. Borge began his career in Denmark as a concert pianist, and when he made the move to comedy, he brought his piano with him. He won the award for Best New Radio Performer of the Year in 1942, had his own show on NBC in the late 1940s, and warmed the couch next to Johnny Carson a number times on The Tonight Show. He received Kennedy Center Honors in 1999, at the age of 90.

My favorite schtick of his is the assimilation of the “Happy Birthday” song into the writings of well-known composers. Here’s one version of it:

As a parent, one of the most impressive things I’ve found about Victor Borge is that his act is both painfully hilarious and completely family-friendly. Let your kids listen to Victor Borge. Better yet, make them listen to Victor Borge.

Peter Schickele, aka P.D.Q. Bach

Peter Schickele, self-proclaimed “Musicolologist,” is both a musician and a comedian, but more importantly, he’s an educator. His classical music education radio show, Schickele Mix, ran for 169 episodes on public radio before eventually being canceled in  the late 1990s for lack of funds. (A sad day in music education.) What was great about his show was that he seamlessly blended comedy and education to create a truly enjoyable and educational show.

That knack for combining musical comedy and musical education extends to his albums. It’s true that much of the comedy behind the albums of Schickele’s alter ego, P.D.Q. Bach (the 24th of J.S. Bach’s 23 children), consists of musical “inside jokes,” but they’re still funny — or at least witty — to everyone. With Schickele, and with P.D.Q. Bach, the more you know about music history, the funnier it gets.

Here’s a bit of classic Peter Schickele comedy from the album Report from Hoople: P.D.Q. Bach on the Air. This is the famous performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with a football-like play-by-play that pits the orchestra against the conductor. The beauty of this piece is that practically everything the announcers say is musicologically accurate, once again melding comedy and education.

Igudesman and Joo

Relative newcomers Alek­sey Igudes­man (violin) and Hyung-ki Joo (piano) met at age 12 at the Yehudi Menuhin International Music School and soon became friends and writing partners. In 2004, they collaborated on their comedy/musical show “A Little Nightmare Music,” which became a YouTube sensation. (You can get the full DVD here — it’s well worth it.) Since then, according to their Web site, “they have per­formed with major sym­phony orches­tras around the world and have played at some of the world’s biggest stages and festivals.” Their routines combine classical music, pop culture, and comedy. Here’s a clip in which the music of Mozart meets the music of James Bond:

For those of you playing the musical version of Six Degrees of Separation, this is the same Hyung-ki Joo, aka Richard Joo, who performs on Billy Joel’s Fantasies & Delusions: Music for Solo Piano.

I’m sure there are some other music-comedy combinations out there that I’ve left off or forgotten. Who isn’t listed here? What is your favorite bit from these or other musical comedians?

Excuse Me, What’s That Instrument You’re Playing?

October 28, 2010 at 9:00 am | Posted in Clarinet, Humor | 1 Comment

Frequently after concerts, someone comes up to me and asks me what my instrument is. They do this because it’s fairly visible, sticking above my head, and because they don’t recall seeing anything like it before.  So, I thought I’d make my instrument the subject for my initial blog post. And, it will more than likely factor into many of my subsequent posts.

I play…the giant paperclip.

OK, so it’s not a giant paperclip, or any kind of paperclip, but it looks like one. You might also think it resembles something from under your kitchen sink. But I certainly try to make it sound better than anything you’d find under there.

It’s actually a contrabass clarinet, the largest and lowest active member of the clarinet family.
Many may not realize that clarinets have a family, but they do. It’s a fairly large family, especially if you include the long-lost cousins. The Indiana Wind Symphony uses several family members: the E-flat and B-flat sopranos, the alto, the bass, and the contrabass. The B-flat sopranos are the ones commonly referred to simply as “clarinets.” The rest require qualifiers. For example, if a conductor says “Let’s hear the clarinets starting at Measure 21,” I know he’s not looking for me to play. When he does refer to my instrument, he usually shortens its name to where it sounds as though I’m a Nicaraguan rebel, possibly even one who is lousy at camouflage. “The contra needs to blend in more.”

My contra—er, contrabass clarinet—is wound up like a paperclip for no other reason than the fact that it’s made of about 8 feet of tubing. If it was straightened out, I’d have to sit on top of a ladder to play it, although I guess it could be held horizontally, in which case it would stick through the two rows of musicians in front of me. Contras do come in other, less amusing shapes, but they’re all basically the same instrument.

However, not all band compositions include contrabass clarinet parts, so I occasionally end up playing a bass saxophone part, if there is one of those. When neither exists, I play bass clarinet.

Well, now that I’ve introduced my instrument (well, one of my instruments) through this post, I realize it’s likely that fewer people will be coming up to me after concerts to ask me what it is, which is unfortunate, because I enjoy the attention. It lets me know they noticed my instrument—maybe not what it sounds like, but at least what it looks like.

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